My Lifelong Fascination With American Express

by Magenta Ranero

I first saw the commercial when I was three. The premise seemed simple enough: a man was taking some clients out on a business dinner at an elegant restaurant. All was well, everyone seemed to be having a good time. Suddenly, that changed: he went over his credit card limit.

I had no idea what a business dinner was, or what it meant to go over one’s limit, but it sounded dreadful.

According to the commercial, there was a solution: American Express.

The card provided so many features, the commercial said. You could travel with ease, have a pleasant, helpful American Express employee at your assistance with just one phone call, and be part of a very exclusive club with all of the world’s luxuries at your disposal. Best of all, there would be no pesky credit limit.

A woman wearing a headset appeared on the screen. Just by calling a 1–800 number, she said, getting a card could be easy. An image of the card itself flashed before me. Green, like the color of money, and with a Roman centurion soldier at its center, it seemed important, necessary to have, yet extremely hard to obtain at the same time. The slogan at the end: “Don’t leave home without it.”

I had no concept of how any of this would matter to me at any point in my life. Being three years old, I thought only of my immediate needs and desires. But right then and there, I decided that as soon as I was a grown up, I would get an American Express card.

And that happened, although admittedly it wasn’t the first thing. Later on in my childhood, I saw both of my parents declare bankruptcy due in part to credit card debt, and I was determined not to go down the same path. Given my spending habits in college, that was probably a good decision. By the time I applied for and got the American Express Blue Cash Everyday card, I was 26. I will admit that I was a little shocked when I got instantly approved: while I had established a very good payment history with my student loans, my credit score wasn’t all that it could be, due in part to my lack of open accounts. I had read horror stories from people on online bulletin boards who had credit scores and histories similar to mine and got rejected.

I awaited the day with glee, looking forward to going home and looking at my mailbox, waiting to see if the card arrived. When it did, I was ecstatic. Finally, I could be a part of that long-exclusive club and enjoy all of the benefits that came with it. Though I should probably mention that unlike the card in the commercial, the card I applied for did have a limit, albeit a somewhat high one that I was not expecting to get.

Ever since, I’ve been interested in all things American Express. Whenever I see an email from them in my inbox, I smile. Just the mothership trying to communicate, I think. “Oooh, fancy!” a bartender once replied when I asked if they accepted Amex, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t swell with pride for a minute, as I do whenever I see the familiar blue window decal. I’m not ashamed to say that it’s also somewhat of a goal of mine to have my own American Express advertisement. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that having “Magenta Ranero: Member Since 2014” written out for all to see would make my life.

More importantly, I like to look at American Express’s marketing. Surely if I were successfully seduced into spending money and acquiring credit, then there had to be something to it. Each commercial and application mailer beckons with the promise of a better life. Just like how you don’t think you need that pair of shoes or that lipstick were it not for a credit card, you don’t think you need first access to concert tickets or a concierge service until it’s waved in front of you. A gold or platinum card just sounds glamorous in and of itself, never mind the $450 annual fee. I mean, Gold! Platinum!

Then, of course, there’s the Centurion card, better known as the “black card.” American Express introduced it in response to an urban legend about a card issued by them that was so exclusive that only a few people in the world had it, but it was accepted everywhere and one could purchase anything with it, as it had no limit. It was as if it American Express both unintentionally created and responded to a contest. In the world of credit, how much more exclusive can you possibly get?

Once Amex deems you worthy, usually after you have developed an excellent history with their Platinum card, and you pay a $7,500 initiation fee, plus a $2,500 annual fee, you receive a box containing a titanium card with your name etched in, as well as your own personal concierge and a bound booklet. All much unlike the thin folder and sheets of paper included with my Blue Cash Everyday card.

There are videos on YouTube unboxing these cards, and while they initially seem banal, the anticipation is so intense — and for some of them, the music choice so unfortunate — that they might as well be pornographic.

At the time I first became aware of American Express, the general culture was just changing from the pervasive greed and self-centeredness of the 1980s, and commercials such as the business dinner one did not seem too hard to relate to. I now ask myself what those people were ordering which would cause that guy to go over his limit.

To its credit, the company has started to move towards the average person as well as maintaining their reputation among corporate high rollers. In 1987, they first introduced their revolving credit card, the now-discontinued Optima, that was obviously attractive to people who may not be able to pay off their entire balance in one month.

The advertisements of recent years have reflected this shift. The everyman of the 1990s, Jerry Seinfeld, appeared with Superman in a series of webisodes in which various everyday problems get solved quickly because someone has an American Express card.

Tina Fey’s string of commercials and print advertisements detailed all the problems and pratfalls that come with being a working mother, and how American Express takes care of the little things — for example, an unauthorized charge on her account — so that she doesn’t have to. The message is, They’re always there, always looking out for you, so you, so you can focus on the things that matter.

Even the current campaign, with Mindy Kaling and Aretha Franklin discussing their career setbacks, can only be aimed at the average, everyday person who has been there, done that, and now wants to establish credit, spend money, and enjoy life a little.

Every marketing campaign for a product aims to do this, but American Express is selling credit. While Amex is certainly not the only credit card company to employ such tactics to appeal to the common consumer, it still manages to have the air of exclusivity it did all those years ago.

I have learned practical financial skills as a result of having my Amex. I’ve learned to take better care of my financial health. After reading on one of the online bulletin boards that it was a good idea to raise my credit line, I asked for, and got, a credit limit increase after a few months of prompt payments. When my introductory 0% APR period was about to run out, I called American Express’s storied customer service hotline and successfully managed to get a lower APR than the one I was supposed to get according to my cardholder’s agreement.

Unfortunately, I also learned the hard way that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to have an Amex as my sole credit card. I quickly found that — at least in New York City — there were still a number of places that didn’t accept it due to its high merchant fees. (To be fair, I did use it exclusively when I was in Los Angeles on vacation and was never turned down, so maybe that’s starting to change.) After a few months, I got the Chase Freedom, simply so I could have a non-American Express card. This boosted my credit line as well, and my overall score did go up as a result.

Recently I got an email from American Express, alerting me to an online community that they were starting. According to the email, I would have the opportunity to talk about American Express with other like-minded people on the internet. I initially saved the email, thinking, “Yes, I’d love the opportunity to talk about American Express with perfect strangers!” I deleted the email soon after.

I plan to maybe take part in the community, but I haven’t yet. For me, part of the fun is basking in American Express’ exclusivity and allure for myself. In that respect, I really do never leave home without it.

Magenta Ranero has previously written for The Toast and Wellesley Underground. She also occasionally writes in her blog. She lives in New York City.