Discover catches classy ride with NYC subway campaign

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New york--Hey, check out the dateline.

What may have eluded you for the past 15 years is that the Ad Review staff is headquartered not in the city that never sleeps, but rather 250 miles south, in the nation's capital. We made that lifestyle choice long ago because 1) Washington is such an interesting, manageable city, and 2) New York is (no offense) an oppressive, dehumanizing, obscenely expensive, stinking hellhole.

As it turns out, though, in addition to our onerous burden of turning out an entire 700-word column every single week, the staff recently has become co-host of a weekly National Public Radio program called "On the Media." (Consult your local listings or check out onthemedia.org. One feature on New York Post police reporter Mark Stamy and another on the besieged Modern Ferret magazine, in all modesty, define the genre of journalism journalism. One we're working on: the trend of self-promoting multimediocrities using one of their journalistic venues to shamelessly hype another. Stay tuned!)

The thing is, delighting and challenging listeners with painstakingly produced stories on a tasty smorgasbord of mass media issues comes at a cost. Because the show is produced by WNYC in New York City, the beleaguered Ad Review team has been spending enormous amounts of time wasting away in Giulianiville-much of it in the yawning and clattering River Styx they call the subway.

The bad news is, that's exposed us to New Yorkers. Frayed to their nerve roots by the brutality of the city, they all bristle-under the thinnest veneer of fake indifference-with the seething, paranoiac energy of Travis Bickel. Every last one of them.

The good news is: transit advertising.

Anyway, some transit advertising. Our current favorite is a campaign from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, for the Discover Card. Unlike the comic yet unnerving TV campaign, the posters make no attempt to be outrageous or funny. Thankfully.

The marketing challenge was simple: to fight the (accurate) perception that Discover is not welcome in nearly the number of retail venues as Visa, MasterCard and American Express, by showing off some of the many fine merchants who do accept Discover. Among them: Crate & Barrel, Eddie Bauer, Walgreens, Dell Computer, The Home Depot, American Airlines, Second City comedy club, etc.

The concept is simple, too: using an image associated with a particular retailer to render a Discover Card. For instance, in the Eddie Bauer version, the card is molded in the lug sole of a muddy hiking boot. In the Crate & Barrel version, it is die-cut into the blade of a spatula, propped up in a canister of stainless-steel kitchen utensils. In the Dell ad, it is found-soundcard-like-in the guts of a computer. In The Home Depot ad, it is routed, amid sawdust and scrapings, into a pine board.

Without resorting to its signature comedic approach, the agency's solution is nonetheless quite witty. This gimmick of advancing Discover's own iconography in the idiom-or at least habitat-of the individual participating retailer is itself quite ingenious. A subway rider might never stare at a Discover card on a transit poster; a Discover card fashioned out of computer innards is absolutely irresistible.

It is equally inspired to exploit the logos (and residual goodwill) of the merchants themselves. As Nasdaq, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard and other advertisers also have realized, somebody else's logo in your advertising may work better than that same logo in its own advertising. Like a brand-name product seen displayed haphazardly in a movie, an out-of-context logo takes on a special resonance, even a minor excitement of recognition.

Yeah, it's borrowed interest, but it's a very profitable transaction, arresting attention, addressing the acceptance issue and at least partially mitigating a second haunting perception problem-namely, that compared with Visa, for instance, Discover is simply declasse. If the very coolness of the card in these ads doesn't help bridge the prestige gap, the association with Second City and American Airlines surely will.

Of course, one of the participating retailers was the defunct Pets.com. Hmm. ... When dead companies live on in the advertising of their survivors. A splendid story idea! We shall contact the good people at "On the Media"

immediately.

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