A flash of lightning, banging doors, scurrying hunchbacks, disembodied human arms…and the cameras are rolling. As fog sifts through the haunted house—an old mansion ghouled up for the occasion—horror novelist Stephen King emerges from the gloom with a flaming taper in one hand and a sinister raven in the other. “Do you know me?” he asks.
Then he gestures toward a table littered with applications for a well-known credit card. “Isn’t life a little scary without it?” asks the maestro of macabre fiction. “The next time you visit your favorite haunt, why not apply for an American Express card?”
King’s gig, which will air in late September, highlights the 10th anniversary of one of TV’s most spectacularly successful commercials. When American Express shot the first spot in 1974 of the now famous ad series, featuring a parade of high achievers whose names are often better known than their faces, only six million people owned Amex cards. Now there are some 18 million. And Amex attributes a big part of the rise to their ads—of which King’s is the 61st and most flamboyant. “We are getting more ambitious with our spots,” concedes Glen Gilbert, director of advertising for Amex. “They’re so well established now, it gives us a chance to experiment and have a little more fun.”
The pioneer flasher of the little green card on TV was actor Norman (Three’s Company) Fell, who did a modest talk piece at the check-in desk of a hotel. And Fell remains the only subject who did not say, “Do you know me?” Rather, he began with “Thanks to TV a lot of people know my face, but not many know my name.”
After Fell the ads swung into the familiar opener that has held through all the spots leading into the spectacular by King, who, like most other Amex guests, confesses he was tickled to be asked to appear. “It’s just such a compliment,” says King, whose new novel, The Talisman, co-authored with Peter Straub, will appear soon after the ad. King did the spot more for laughs than for celebrity. “Certainly it’s not going to do much for my literary reputation, although,” he cracks, “many would say that I don’t have a literary reputation to worry about.”
One thing’s for sure. King, whose writings and film versions of Carrie and The Shining have earned him millions, didn’t do the ad for money. And neither have most of the other guest hosts. The $10,000 payment, plus residuals, has not changed in 10 years.
Despite the modest fee Amex has no trouble finding subjects. Together with Ogilvy & Mather, the Manhattan agency that created the campaign, Amex selects the potpourri of known-unknowns for the spots. Though hundreds of unsolicited requests pour in each year, the agency tactfully puts off the volunteers. “I can’t think of an instance in which we chose someone who approached us first,” says an Ogilvy & Mather executive.
One of the most successful invitations went to the late William Miller, Barry Goldwater’s running mate in the 1964 Presidential election. “It was amazing the recognition he got from the ads,” says his widow, Stephanie. “He used to say, ‘I definitely recommend that before someone runs for Vice-President, they do an American Express commercial!’ ”
Another especially popular advertisement was the one in which Tom Landry, the stonefaced coach of the Dallas Cowboys, appeared in a Western saloon decked out as a cowboy and surrounded by redskins—Washington Redskins, that is, in football garb. “My reputation is sort of stoic, which is planned,” says Landry, “so a lot of people were surprised.”
Other Amex stars were themselves surprised to find that the ads improved not only their image but also sales of their products. “It helped business,” says Roy Jacuzzi, founder of the whirlpool-bath company that bears his name. In 1982 he posed in one of his creations with a rubber duck—and artfully saved the show when the whirlpool quit during filming. Roy jumped out and, off-camera, shimmied under the tub with a pair of pliers and a wrench. The bath soon whirled back to life, with the cameras rolling again and a happy proprietor bubbling inside.
Opera star Roberta Peters agrees the spots provide a business boost. “It definitely helped bring people to the opera,” she says of her 1980 commercial. Peters also admits she is recognized more often since doing the ad. While she was trying unsuccessfully to flag down a Manhattan cab one day, a woman stuck her head out of a car window and yelled, “Do it da way you do it in da cammercial!” Peters obliged. She held up her hand and launched into a soprano trill. “Taaaxiii!”