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Jeff Atlas Remembers Amex's Statue of Liberty Campaign

It was my pleasure to interview via email Jeff Atlas, the lead creative behind the celebrated American Express campaign 26 years ago to restore to glory the Statue of Liberty. The campaign launched modern cause marketing. Jeff’s client, Jerry Welsh, who was executive vice president worldwide marketing and communications at American Express, even coined the term ‘cause-related marketing.’

Like a show that gets tested in regional theaters before going to Broadway, Amex tried out cause-related marketing first regionally before bringing it to New York and Lady Liberty.

Atlas writes, “It started in small regional efforts to support the arts. ‘Eat for the Arts’ was one memorable line we used. Another directed people to American Express Travel offices. ‘If you love the Dallas ballet, go away.’ Then came an effort to help Mount Vernon [George Washington’s home], then the Statue of Liberty. The rest is marketing history.”

The first thing I posed to Jeff wasn’t so much a question as a compliment. I told him the Statue of Liberty campaign was legendary and that when I was at Children's Miracle Network we drew inspiration from the Amex campaign all the time. And we cited it to would-be sponsors just as often.

His response:

The campaign is “legendary”? As in, it might not really have existed? 

Seriously, you made my day.

Tell me about the campaign.

Have you ever seen the actual print campaign?

It was a double-page spread done in blue, with a tight close-up of the face of the Statue.

Headline: In addition to all the logical reasons for using the American Express Card,
there is now one that is unabashedly sentimental.

The headline is characteristically my style.  First, it sets a tone of voice for the campaign. It's dignified, intelligent, and just a little bit formal. I wanted to be sure that we were not being perceived as trading on or cheapening the image of the Statue. If the headline had been, “The next time you go shopping, buy one hat for you and one for her,” people who take the Statue very seriously - and there are many who see it as a shrine to American values - would have been offended. They would have thought, American Express is trading on the reputation of the Statue of Liberty for their own profits. This dignified tone of voice was a shift from that which we had used for the  regional campaigns, which were fun and lighthearted. We thought that would not do for this. So, we approached it in another way.

Secondly, and this is purely a stylistic tic of mine, I loved using the word “unabashedly.” When I take a more “literary” voice, I love to use a word that is not in everyday parlance. Even if people don’t register it consciously, they feel that something is different. They also know that the ad is not talking down to them. It’s an intelligent ad with intelligent language for an intelligent person. But “unabashedly is not too far ahead of people. I would probably not use the word “abstruse” because it’s, well, too abstruse.

This is making me feel obtuse.

If this sounds like an ad guy who is WAY overthinking, in truth, all of these thoughts did not really occur to me at the time. I attribute it to a gut instinct that I have. Something feels “right” to me, even if I can’t quite tell you why. I am also an art director - although I was working with a great art director on this ad, Nancy O'Neil - and I have the same feelings. I will look at an image and feel “something” is wrong. I have to fiddle and fiddle until it feels right to me.

For another Amex print campaign, we had taken a portrait of Peter Falk in a “Columbo” raincoat. My art director had placed the image in the center of the page. That didn’t feel right to me. I inched it left, then more left, then further left - until a portion of the picture was running off the side of the page. That left a huge expanse of empty white space. Finally, that seemed interesting to me. (Here I will, immodestly, tell you that this ad went on to with the $25,000 Stephen Kelly Prize for the best print ad of the year.)

What about the art you chose for the ad?

I have a funny story. The photograph, which is an extreme close-up of the face with a blue cast, was quite unusual. When we first showed it to Jerry Welsh, he said, “I think she looks sad.” We said that it looked striking and had a strong, visceral impact. Quickly - which is Jerry’s style - he took the picture and showed it to some secretaries and people who were wandering around the Amex offices. They thought the image was moving. He came back - and the campaign was done.

Who else was involved?

While I have described my role in this campaign, I would be entirely remiss not to give enormous credit to both Tom Rost and Jerry Welsh. Tom was the creative director on all of the Amex business, aka, my boss. He was enormously supportive and provided calm and sanity in a sometimes nutty environment.  

And, of course, Jerry Welsh. I talked to him recently and told him that as “the father of CRM,” he must be very proud of how his offspring had grown up. Truly, think of all of the good that has come from his idea. All of the charitable groups that have been funded and all of the people who have been helped. Jerry is “larger than life” and has left an impact that befits his personality.

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