News & Views

Once more, with feeling

by James Swift

Not long ago I came across a Mastercard campaign from New Zealand that had everything we at Contagious look for when hunting good work. It was smart and persuasive, and I liked it a lot. Then I spoke with the planner about the strategy behind the campaign and I liked it even more.

But then I saw the awards case study video and suddenly I liked it a bit less.

The campaign was to get more New Zealanders using the contactless payment method. Mastercard had discovered that customers who make contactless payments tend to choose it over cash more often and, by some quirk of finance, contactless is also more profitable for the company than chip and pin.

McCann Sydney’s answer was a nationwide competition where the town that registered the most taps per capita during a two-month span won a visit from All-Blacks legend Richie McCaw, who would take on some locals in a game of touch rugby. The competition increased both the frequency and penetration of contactless payments among New Zealanders, and it ran long enough to make the habit of tapping a lasting one among consumers.

So far so smart. But in an awards case study video that was published shortly before Cannes, all this took a backseat. The real concern, intoned the narrator, was that small-town retailers were under threat from dwindling populations and from Amazon. Mastercard was here to save the day.

There’s a famous legal judgement that ‘the state of a man's mind is as much a fact as the state of his digestion’, so I’ll be careful here and say that I have no reason to doubt that Mastercard was concerned about the plight of small businesses in New Zealand. As McCann explains, quite soundly, getting merchants on side is an important pillar of Mastercard's strategy. 

The point is that, to my mind, this campaign was far more impressive when it was framed as the solution to Mastercard’s business problem. As a defence against shifting demographics and changing retail habits, it was so-so.

I understand why that angle might have won the day. By my count, less than half of the 30 Grands Prix at Cannes this year went to campaigns unabashedly selling stuff without a higher purpose (in fairness, three categories are dedicated to work that does well by doing good).

And, to be honest, I feel like a bit of a crank for taking umbrage at Mastercard putting its most purposeful foot forward. When X Factor deteriorated into a show that was less about talent and more about who had the best sob story, you never wanted to take it out on the poor soul cry-singing for their dead nan.

But if you stepped back, the industrialised mawkishness of the reality TV show felt gross, like something was being exploited.

Marketers using their money and influence to help the world is of course a good thing. No right-thinking person could object to it. But for as long as clients still come to agencies for help with strategy or boosting sales, the work made in pursuit of those goals should have equal standing. It should not have to dress up as anything else to warrant praise and recognition.

You might argue that this tacit dogma is a good thing; that even a veneer of purpose does a little bit of good for the world at a time when the world needs all the good it can get. And you might be right. But somehow, when you take a step back, it all makes for an unedifying spectacle.