Last week, I called American Express to activate a new credit card it had sent me to replace my lost one.
In the process, I noticed that I have been an American Express member for forty years, a much longer period than any of the spokesman-hucksters the company trots out for its commercials and five times longer than the average first marriage!
I told the phone representative that to commemorate my long tenure American Express should, at the very least, waive its annual fee. And furthermore, I felt that a small token of its appreciation—perhaps three free nights at the deluxe hotel of my choice—would be appropriate given our four-decade long association. During that period, American Express has not gifted me so much as a toothbrush.
As our conversation continued, I noted to the agent that last year American Express paid its top five executives an aggregate of $61 million. Apparently then the company could well afford to loosen up some pocket change for what it is forever referring to as its "valuable customers."
But the longer I spoke about the perks I've earned, the more the representative ignored me. Instead, she brazenly pressed me to upgrade my membership from gold to platinum.
Sensing correctly that I was getting nowhere, I then proposed that American Express take an entire new advertising direction.
Since American Express recently dumped Tiger Woods after ten years together (thirty less than me), I proposed that the company should shift its focus from high profile stars to everyday Americans like—well, like me.
What's the point of hiring the glitterati to hawk American Express cards? Of course, they don't leave home without them! And not only are their memberships fees waived, they get millions of dollars for shilling.
I took a page from American Express' advertising history to prove how I could play a valuable role.
In 2004, the company launched its "My Life, My Card" campaign featuring, in addition to Woods, Ellen De Generes, Robert De Niro, and professional surfer Laird Hamilton.
Some of the original advertisements were directed by Martin Scorsese and photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
Each was shot on location with the scenes, according to John Hayes, American Express Chief Marketing officer, "reflecting the places, causes, achievements and avocations that are meaningful to each person."
And claimed Hayes, the ads would "reveal snapshots of the lives of these incredible individuals as we demonstrate our belief that our card members are exceptional people no matter where they live or what they do."
Finally, Hayes concluded that: "achievers of all types choose American Express."
Hayes left the door wide open for me. While I certainly wouldn't describe myself as "incredible" or "exceptional"—far from it—I am an achiever of sorts, albeit an underachiever.
Here's the spot that I envision running on national television:
"You don't have to be rich and famous to have an American Express card. Here's Joe Guzzardi, an English as a second language instructor toiling obscurely in California's San Joaquin Valley and supplementing his meager income with a pittance paid to him by the Lodi News-Sentinel for his weekly opinion column. Although Guzzardi's wages have been stagnant for more than twenty-five years, when he flashes his Gold American Express Gold Card people think he's famous!"
At first, my concept got a chilly reception.
But then I recast my idea so that it would be certain to grab the attention of decision makers.
Since I'll work for peanuts, comparatively, the company can use the tens of millions it will save and add them to the already lofty salaries paid out to the top brass.
For example, American Express Chairman Kenneth Chenault, would get a pay raise from his annual $25 million to $28 million.
Once my revised plan gets circulated throughout the boardroom, I'm sure my phone will start ringing!
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.