Capital One Unlock Effectiveness in March Madness Ad

Capital One

Key to the City


One of the most consistent and entertaining campaigns in America now, and for the last several years, is Capital One’s commercials with Charles Barkley, Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson. One A-List actor, one legendary director, and one hoops legend – making one highly effective team. The three men team up in a flurry of Capital One ads when the NCAA March Madness tournament comes around each year.

The ads don’t put a lot of work into promoting specific Capital One products or pushing messages. They are purely out to get the brand in front of college basketball viewers in an entertaining way, and they do that job every time. The ads are comedies, with Barkley usually at the center of the action and Jackson and Lee acting as the foil to his antics. This isn’t edgy humor though – the comedy is more on the cozy end of things. Putting the “ad” in Dad Jokes.

The trio’s latest commercial is a great example. The three pals are visiting Phoenix, where Barkley has the “key to the city.” That’s not a real key, the others point out – but they’re wrong, and the guys find themselves in some of Phoenix’s most off-limits places, like the tiger enclosure at the city zoo and the power plant. Eventually the authorities insist Barkley hands the key back, and another absurd adventure ends.

What Capital One are creating here is known as a “Hired Device.” A Hired Device is essentially what happens when a brand uses celebrities regularly in ads in the place where a Fluent Device – one owned by the brand – would go. Barkley and friends drive the creative work for Capital One, which builds stories around their actions, but they aren’t a brand-owned distinctive asset. Hired Devices have advantages – built-in name recognition to get the campaign off to a strong start, for instance. But they run a risk too of distracting from the brand. Maybe people are chuckling at the ad but instantly forgetting who it’s for?

Fortunately that’s what we have testing for. The “Key to the City” commercial scores a strong 4.0-Stars on the Test Your Ad platform, putting it into the Top 20 of the over 1,000 US Credit Cards and Credit Checking ads we’ve tested. But just as important, it gets Exceptional ratings on short-term Spike and on Brand Fluency, which shows the level of recognition. The star power of these commercials is not distracting anyone from the brand they’re advertising.

Credit Cards are not where we usually find the most effective ads. Most fail to engage or entertain their audience – the average score for the sector is a poor 1.8-Star. By focusing on funny, engaging, and consistent content, and making it part of an already entertaining event, Capital One has broken way out of its category conventions and is well ahead of most competitors. “Key to the City” is just more proof they have the key to effective commercials.

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