MasterCard’s “Priceless” campaign was first introduced in 1997 featuring a father and son going to a baseball game. The phenomenally well-known commercial has its signature format – two or three tangible materials given a price (i.e. “one autographed baseball. $50.”) ending with one intangible satisfactory achievement (i.e. “real conversation with 11 year-old son. Priceless.”). At the end of each MasterCard commercial is the slogan, “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else there’s MasterCard.” By purchasing tangible products with the credit card, the consumer is ultimately able to reach the “priceless” moments that money cannot buy. MasterCard tackles our modern society’s belief that anything and everything is possible with money. However, as much as we are part of the consumer society, we know that there still exist more important values that cannot be obtained monetarily. By using MasterCard “for everything else,” we are able to experience the “priceless.”

Through a meticulously crafted advertisement format and slogan, MasterCard significantly influenced how consumers view the brand over time, for “in a consumer society such as our own, where private business firms are the predominant institutions in the marketplace, the transmission of social cues for consumption styles is generated by these firms’ wishes to deliver messages about products and services” (Leiss, et al., 89). The corporation successfully humanized itself and appealed to the audience as MasterCard was able to stand and compete against major credit card brands including Visa and American Express.

However, as “traditional cultures have been weakened and the field of satisfaction filled with an ever-changing variety of unfamiliar, mass-produced goods,” MasterCard expanded and upgraded its campaign as a new strategy to adapt to the consumer culture and distinguish its brand. The “Priceless Cities” campaign enables consumers to experience moments that are unique to each city. The campaign initially started off in New York and is continuing to grow ever since across different cities in the world. The ideology is “to connect people to their passions, whether that’s shopping, dining, sports, travel, theater or music” (Zmuda). The revival of the pre-existing and old “Priceless” campaign that has been embedded into people’s lives for a long period of time provides a new way for people to consume; the credit card itself becomes a commodity and good. The consumer is “channeled not only through the buying of objects, but experience” that can only be attained through MasterCard (Littler, 28). As MasterCard emphasizes on the experience that follows consumption, the brand recognizes and sells several factors.

MasterCard sells a lifestyle, “a unique way of life defined by its distinctive array of values, drives, beliefs, needs, dreams and special points of view” (Leiss, et al., 240). The brand isn’t selling any lifestyle but a global and classy one that stands out from the average, middle-class. It is evident that “under conditions of modernity some individuals and groups secured status not because of their income or family pedigree, but through their ‘style of life’” (Leiss, et al., 303). MasterCard recognizes the existence of a certain leisure class and taste culture that has the time and power to spare on luxury goods and pleasure. Then, the brand democratizes luxury by providing a chance for consumers to take part of the privileged group; the unaffordable and unusual becomes available to those who are MasterCard cardholders. As consumers, we want to experience special moments and share them with our close ones that aren’t allowed to everyone. MasterCard provides such chance of feeling selected and with pleasurable experiences come the status, lifestyle and identity of belonging to a higher class.

The recognition of our culture’s conspicuous consumption and a taste culture are shown through a vicarious experience of leisure activities. The commercials “A Tasting of New York City” and “A New York City Culinary Adventure” walk the audience through exploring food culture and night life in New York City. Friends and couples enjoy luxurious dinners and cocktails at restaurants and bars with one of the best views in the city. Each and every aspect of the commercial provides a vision of conspicuous leisure, which MasterCard helps the consumer achieve. “A life of leisure is the readiest and most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength, and therefore of superior force; provided always that the gentleman of leisure can live in manifest ease and comfort” (Veblen, 25). Such desirable lifestyle is demonstrated as restaurant/bar managers, owners and chefs interview and narrate what they have to offer to the consumers who experience them with pleasure and happiness. While those interviewers are busy working, serving and explaining how they will bring specialty to their guests, we see the groups of friends and couples relaxing and receiving full service. The contrast between the guests and the laboring class clearly shows the “evidence of wealth” as a mark of “social standing” (Veblen, 27). Moreover, for the leisure class, “time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of the unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence of pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness” (Veblen, 28). MasterCard clearly position itself as a brand of leisure and luxury by providing images of pleasure and exclusiveness through shared experiences with food and friends.

As a member of the leisure class, one must “consume freely and of the best, in food, drink…services, ornaments, apparel…” (Veblen, 46). MasterCard distinguishes its brand by providing priceless moments achieved through expensive food, sports games and concerts, all of which are leisure activities appealing to certain groups. Along with the ideology of conspicuous leisure that MasterCard promotes comes the importance of taste. “Taste identifies the individual and their choices in relationship to the diverse and changing cultural field, and those with considerable cultural capital utilize its power to assure that their tastes are recognized as being superior” (Leiss, et al., 305). The importance of having good taste is emphasized in our culture and the definition of “taste” illustrated through the campaign. In the commercial, “A New York City Culinary Adventure,” three young foodies explore the tasting menus of three selected restaurants in New York. The commercial uses food, our daily need, to enhance much deeper meanings; the focus is less on the fact that we are eating to satisfy our hunger needs but we are having a shared experience and a communion by sharing a special moment, reminiscing our childhood and creating memories to look back and cherish. MasterCard cardholders know what it is like to have good taste as “taste classifies, and it classifies the classier” (Bourdieu, 6). The commercial further shows how consumers can use taste and eating habits to distinguish themselves as a different class. There is a clear difference between “the taste of necessity, which favors the most ‘filling’ and most economical foods, and the taste of liberty – or luxury – which shifts the emphasis to the manner (of presenting, serving, eating, etc.)” (Bourdieu, 6). People of the leisure class know how to appreciate the abstraction and meaning of food as an indicator of a luxurious lifestyle. They are able to choose to enjoy the expensive tasting menus of fine dining and prove that they have the acquired taste. MasterCard successfully appeals that such desirable lifestyle of leisure consumption is possible for its cardholders as they feel like a part of the exclusive class.

MasterCard’s campaign is not limited to one component of good taste and leisure, but expands to larger scopes and categories available in different places. The commercial “James Morrison Live – Extended Cut,” recaptures the private performance of James Morrison for MasterCard cardholders. Cardholders are interviewed throughout the commercial, sharing their excitement for having such experience. 10 cardholders were invited backstage to personally meet James Morrison, in which MasterCard provides a once in a life time “priceless” moment. A cardholder who is interviewed and shown at the end of the commercial mentions that meeting James Morrison backstage is “something that money can’t buy, which is MasterCard.” These people who share the same music taste desire “freedom from the mundane and the everyday” (Leiss, et al., 484). Such leisure activity that is fun, exciting, lively and trendy sends the message that the consumer can not only have fun, but have experiences on a different level than others by implementing the privacy aspect to the party. Hence, MasterCard uses music to as an additional component to the leisure class and taste culture.

MasterCard Priceless Cities New York Campaign

“Check In to the Ball Game” Facebook campaign

MasterCard recognizes that “the world is changing. It’s a different place…Today, [MasterCard has] a new campaign that takes [us] from observing priceless moments to enabling priceless moments” (Zmuda). The most effective way to do so in today’s culture is through social media. MasterCard set up a Facebook campaign, “Check In to the Ball Game,” and used New York Yankees as the grand promotion of the “Priceless Cities” campaign. 20 seats from the Yankee stadium were located all across the city for consumers to find. Consumers who found the chairs could virtually check-in to the places in order to win VIP tickets to the Yankees game. The Facebook campaign shows the result of a close observation of “increasing detailed management of consumption and leisure time” (Manzerolle, 325). Spiking the interests of American baseball fans by presenting a prestigious opportunity related to sports definitely breaks through clutter and appeal to its audience, ultimately leading to more social awareness as the news is spread quickly across a social media platform. By accurately targeting a certain target, MasterCard was able to “both mirror the essence or will of the consumer and help create consumer wants and needs, thereby gaining market advantage over competitors” (Manzerolle, 325). In a culture full of good and commodities, “the goal is no longer simply to generate impressions but to foster engagement,” and MasterCard exactly does so by putting consumers into action (Andrejevic, 72). Through active engagement and feedback from media savvy consumers, MasterCard was able to not only create a new community that shared the same interests, but also cost efficiently advertise its brand’s benefits and collect data that they can incorporate for future campaigns. In return, MasterCard cardholders were specially rewarded with VIP treatments that classify them as a leisure class that knows how to follow the trend and live the moment by enjoying exclusive service. Because “participants are immersed in the narrative, they are distracted from the advertisement and therefore do not think critically” about the mechanism behind engaging social media as a way to launch the grand campaign of “Priceless Cities.”

While focusing on leisure activities, the “Priceless Cities” campaign spreads to different cities to show diverse for MasterCard cardholders to enjoy its benefits and rewards. “We find that advertisers preserve traces of the more stable formats inherited from the past, linking new goods and styles with traditional images of well-being,” such as “happiness of loved ones” and “good taste in judging fine foods, wines, and clothing” (Leiss, et al., 328). MasterCard has kept its original strategy of providing the “priceless” but added the upscale lifestyle to its new campaign. The expansion of the campaign to Toronto as shown through “Priceless Toronto: The Toronto Christmas Market” incorporation of Japanese culinary experiences in “A New York City Culinary Adventure” show the coming together of global cultures and concepts of “cosmopolitanism.” The kind of cosmopolitanism we see through the foodies who demonstrate the lifestyle of a leisure class “builds its ‘association of cosmopolitan globality with privilege’, and is organized around motifs such as ‘classy consumption’” (Littler, 27). Isao Yamada, the executive chef of Brushstroke, interviews in Japanese instead of English – the subtitles are provided on the commercial. Such purposeful format of the advertisement emphasizes the unique ethnic culture that follows the cuisine. Brining the Japanese culture into New York City provides the cultural experience without having to travel all the way. The culinary adventure in New York enables the consumer to become cosmopolitan, attaining knowledge of diverse cultures and engaging in classy consumption. In addition, Toronto’s Christmas market presents the “possibility of being both cosmopolitan and caring through consumption” (Littler, 23). The commercial features the holiday season, showing glimpses of the Christmas market where consumers purchase holiday goods with the MasterCard credit card. It focuses greatly on family and children as a way to remind us of the warm and joyful moments of Christmas. By associating with pleasant emotions and experiences, MasterCard establishes an approachable and humanizing identity while also implementing the cosmopolitan concept that MasterCard consumers can be “[citizens] of the world” (Littler, 23). The same experience of sharing priceless moments with loved ones can happen across cultures and cities in the world, thus allowing the coexistence of values and lifestyles.

“Advertising contributes to the creation of new symbols, and indeed, new ‘taste cultures’” (Leiss, et al., 482). What we consume, how we consume and why we consume create certain identities. The level of consumption and the quality of it determine our class, taste and lifestyle. It is evident that the exclusive offers and experiences provided by MasterCard are not everyday activities; they are special. The average person cannot afford to live such lifestyle – dine at fine restaurants, enjoy drinks at a table of a bar that overlooks Manhattan’s best views, watch live sports in VIP seating, meet a famous singer at the backstage of a concert and spend time with families on Christmas day filled with gifts. However, it is definitely a lifestyle everyone looks up to and secretly desires. Consumers of MasterCard receive unforgettable benefits for using the credit cards, living the life full of leisure and comfort. Thus, MasterCard successfully offers to bring in more “priceless” moments to the consumer’s life by breaking the restrictions of social class and  democratizing luxury, but only if the consumer is part of the “consumption community” (Leiss, et al., 69).

Work Cited

Andrejevic, Mark. “Productive Play 2.0: The Logic of In-Game Advertising.” Media International Australia 30 (2009): 66-76.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.

Leiss, et al. Social Communication in Advertising Consumption in the Mediated Marketplace. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Littler, Jo. “Cosmopolitan Caring.” Radical Consumption: Shopping for Change in Contemporary Culture. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open UP//McGraw-Hill Education, 2009. 23-49. Print.

Manzerolle, Vincent and Sandra Smeltzer. “Consumer Data Bases and the Commercial Mediation of Identity: A Medium Theory Analysis.” Surveillance and Society 8 (2011): 326. Print.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, 1994. Print.

Zmuda, Natalie. “Mastercard’s Priceless Evolution.” Advertising Age 11 Oct. 2012: n. pag. Web. <http://adage.com/article/special-report-ana-annual-meeting-2012/mastercards-priceless-evolution/237706/&gt;.

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