THE BLOG

Reading the Pictures: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid (Without Your AmEx Card)

09/10/2013 08:37 am ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013
  • Michael Shaw Publisher of the visual politics and media literacy site, Reading The Pictures.

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Cyber War, cyber-security, electronic armies, domestic spying. The galloping anxiety right now surrounding war, dangerous brown people in the Middle East, electronic surveillance, privacy and security agency breaches offers the perfect storm for those Orwellians on Madison Avenue to scare you into, what else, but much stronger brand identification. Thus... welcome to "American Express intelligent security," where your affiliation with the corporation and the card has suddenly morphed and expanded and you're now a "member of a more secure world."

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Call it security for funk and profit.

Sitting on the couch with my Pop watching that Djokavic - Wawrinka slugfest on Saturday (the first time I've seen network television in forever), the fear narrative and the visual suggestion in the new Amex "Too Comfortable" ad actually disturbed my beta-wave stupor. Not knowing who or how many digital al-Qaeda types, or other dark keyboard commandos-as-hipsters are laying in wait in the coffee bar, the ad turns the vulnerability of this fashionable, obviously well-heeled, impulsive-buying young white woman into a "whodunit."

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Is it the dude with the beard and the laptop, an Iranian or Syrian maybe, who violated her account?

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Or perhaps it was the black girl and the other maybe Near East Asian guy who she invites to check out her mobile?

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Or maybe it's simply the homegrown grad student-y/Occupy Wall Street-type guy.

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Whoever it is who rips off our consumer, however, it's American Express, by way of some insta-notification widget thingy, that saves the day -- and our protagonist's acquisition of that $848 Chrono-something-or-other watch. From a dramatic standpoint and a killer close, however, it enables her to project that much confidence and even emit a defiant stare at the hacker creeps all around (enhanced, also, with some pretty homey, not-high tech typography).

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After "Too comfortable," of course, I was too uncomfortable not to set off looking for clones Amex might have rushed to market. "Security Camera Odyssey" was the other 30-second Homeland-wannabe and invitation to the club I found from the financial monolith. This vid tries to convince you that your safety shield from both the surveillance society and the dangers it purports to keep in check is your extended Amex security membership.

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What I especially liked in this piece, layering on the nerve-wracking visual snippets, was this particular frame. Even if it was purely incidental, I'm still a sucker for a Moorish ceiling design.

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Overall though, I wish I could have been a fly on the wall  (or had the benefit of one of those silent, microscopic drones) at the Amex pitch meeting. The way advertising has appropriated culture, counter-culture and political culture, and the way they've got you nervous about big brother as much as what's lurking in the shadows, I can just hear the ad exec starting off the presentation with that classic line from Catch-22: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."

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(screen grabs from "Too Comfortable" and "Security Camera Odyssey" -- Amex via YouTube)