Absurd Bears and a Well-Hidden Sales Pitch

By Published on .

Advertiser: American Express
Agency: Ogilvy & Mather, New York
Star Rating: 1.5

The new Jerry Seinfeld commercial for American Express works, and we

A pair of bears cruise by on a golf cart.
can prove it. But first, a disclaimer:

Not long ago, we shrewdly approached American Express to put us in contact with Seinfeld, whom we wanted to write a foreword for our forthcoming book. He's famously fascinated with advertising and we're sort of slightly acquainted, so, why not? Borrowed interest, this is called.

Seinfeld, however, passed. He was busy developing his new standup act, and the acquaintance was more like a mugging and, anyway, why would he drop everything to play second banana to Ad Review? Common sense, this is called.

It bites
We only mention that in the interest of full disclosure, because now we are in the awkward position of evaluating the latest Seinfeld/AmEx spot from Ogilvy & Mather, New York -- and it is really pretty terrible. Ordinarily in such a situation, facing even the whiff of conflict of interest, we'd patiently wait until we had something nice to say. But a) we have absolutely no reason to bear ill will, except for b) this commercial, which bites.

(Yes, as we said, the advertising definitely works, but it is also terrible. Explanation to follow.)

The spot opens with what appears to be a nature documentary: a scene of grizzly bears foraging around a campsite in the woods. "The grizzly bear -- " says the narrator, "massive, majestic, monarch of the wild -- is one of nature's most fearsome predators."

Lots of absurdity
Here [Joke #1. Absurdity.] The scene switches to the interior of a camping tent, just like the one we've just seen. Seinfeld, in a goofy outfit, is eating popcorn and watching that very documentary on a portable TV. [Joke #2. Man out of his element.]

"Yes!" he exclaims. "Bear week!" [Joke #3. Observation about cable.]

The narrator continues: "It is believed their intellectual curiosity is rivaled only by man." Then a cut to Seinfeld, gawking, slack-jawed. [Joke #4. Juxtaposition yielding satire.] Then a couple of product shots and a voice-over: "Boulder tent, Toshiba TV, just a few of the thousands of awards built into the new American Express Card."

Finally, back to the tent, where Seinfeld watches in dim fascination. "Secret competitive nature. That I'd like to see." Whereupon, through the tent flap, we see two bears drive by in a golf cart. [Joke #5. More absurdity.]

Frequent viewings
So there you have it: five pretty good jokes in search of an advertisement. It took our staff of expert professionals three viewings to figure out the action, four viewings to locate the offer, which seems to be some sort of frequent-charger premium. (Pitching a tent! Ha! See? We're incredibly hilarious, too!)

Putting aside for a moment how derivative the bear gags are of last year's award-winning spot for John West canned salmon, among other things, the fact is that the jokes do not highlight the sell.

They conceal the sell.

Nonetheless, as we said, the spot did work. After one viewing, the staff left the Ad Review Viewing Lab for the Test Kitchen, where we microwaved a bag of popcorn.

Advertising Blizt Department:
Hoover is marketing its next-generation bagless upright vacuum cleaner as the V2.

The V2?

We suppose they just couldn't get a trademark for Zyklon B.

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