I am not a monster. I’m not all bad. Maybe 10 percent. I think I’m 90 percent good.”
– John McEnroe, in 1984.
I have always had a soft spot for John McEnroe. This stems from the several things we have in common. I share a birthday with the man, I do own at least one tennis racket and sadly I also have a very short fuse. These may seem tenuous connections at best but they are what they are. Six degrees of separation it is not.
McEnroe will always be one of the more fascinating sports legends to have played a game. He is arguably one of the true legends of tennis even as his obnoxious behavior and dramatic insults will almost guarantee to overshadow everything he has ever accomplished within the game.
“You cannot be serious!”
– John McEnroe rant, common and continuous
McEnroe won a total of 155 top-level titles. He won seven Grad Slam singles titles and the season-ending Masters championships three times. He won the World Championship Tennis Finals a record five times. His list of accomplishment is undeniable and goes on at great length.
While it was embarrassing to watch a grown man behave the way he did, it still made for riveting television and helped to catapult him and tennis to the top of the public’s consciousness. That his own reputation became cemented as something of a butt-head was totally his own fault.
“Paris would be a nice place if you took all the people out of the city.”
– John McEnroe (1977)
Why American Express would want to hitch its brand to someone known for tantrums, racket-throwing stomp fests, expletive laden vocal fits and attempted tennis ball assaults on umpires and line judges may seem counter-intuitive. It’s not.
“You are the absolute pits of the world!”
– John McEnroe, in his most famous insult, ranting at umpire Edward James during the 1981 Wimbledon Championships.
American Express wants to publicize their all new ad campaign that claims they don’t want to argue with their customers any more. They want warm and fuzzy “dispute resolution.” They want you to know they are willing to listen to your complaint and may even take it seriously no matter how dumb it may actually be.
“I mailed that check two weeks ago. I cannot believe you haven’t received it yet.”
– Jarrod Thalheimer, 2002 through 2007
This new branding plan sets up a great television ad where a shocked McEnroe realizes his own faults while being treated uber-respectfully by his American Express card representative. John sees the light and thinks there may actually have been some points in his tennis career where he might have been a tad intransigent himself.
Cut to McEnroe checking an address as he walks to the front door of a house somewhere in America. A man answers the door as the “Super Brat” states that the man at the door was the chair umpire of the 1985 US Open. The look that hits the guy’s face is – to steal from MasterCard – priceless as he makes like he is not only going to slam the door in Mac’s face but also hopes it might just continue on through the frame and dust McEnroe backwards off the step.
Mac stops him, saying that he, John McEnroe, might have been wrong and that (back then) the ball may have been out. Seeing the light, he then hugs the umpire, proving that arguments are a waste of time and that “dispute resolution” is the way to go. It is such a ridiculous image that you have to love it. This hits two really good notes for American Express. First, that Amex wants to be your friend above all else. They don’t want to fight with you and they use humor (the ad) to prove it. Second, by having Mac say the ball “may have been out” they also manage to inoculate themselves against some bozo claiming the drunken and depraved Vegas weekend he charged on his card wasn’t actually his even though the Elvis wedding chapel photos show his presence, and his companions, quite clearly. They’ll resolve disputes but they aren’t going to let you walk all over them.
The ad tailors American Express’ message perfectly. It also goes a long way to helping McEnroe rehabilitate the more distasteful aspects of his own image as he ages and wonders what sort of legacy he might leave behind.
“I want to be remembered as a great player, but I guess it will be as a player who got angry on a tennis court.”
– The lament of an over-the-hill John McEnroe
If he keeps doing ads like this McEnroe might actually get his wish.