Karl Malden. As pitchman for American Express, he captured our country’s blind optimism and secret fears.
July 6, 2009
I’d forgotten about Karl Malden…
For many years Malden was the voice of American Express, during a period of time that is beginning to look more and more like advertising’s golden age. In our industry, the 80s were about storytelling, big budgets and celebrities. Places like BBDO and Leo Burnett ruled the roost. Campaigns for Pepsi featuring Michael Jackson (also newly dead) and Amex’s “Don’t Leave Home Without It” captured, if not defined, popular culture.
Part of me misses none of that but I can’t deny the shiny, cosmetic optimism that radiated from work like Pepsi. Or in Malden’s case, the sense of security and protection he offered for his client, and by extension, us. All very Ronald Reagan-like, when you think about it.
Below Malden’s Cop-like veneer, the campaign mustered America’s secret fear of other people, places and things while cleverly offering safe harbor via traveler’s checks. The operative word in the brilliant tagline was “home” and home meant the United States. It was American Express after all.
Arguably paranoid and protectionist, the American Express campaign personified by Karl Malden captured the zeitgeist of Ronald Reagan’s America brilliantly…like it or not.