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Capital One’s Condemnation, Conversion, and Eventual Celebration of Mythical Medieval Northern European Males through Allegorical Commercials

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2024

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Summary

Over the past several decades, there has been a variety of narratives associated with the American Capital One credit card “What's in your wallet?” commercial campaign, and one of them (lasting from roughly late 2000 to 2013) features the medieval men of northern Europe invading contemporary United States. The campaign's central question “What's in your wallet?” is coy – almost seductively sexy – but also invasive and aggressive. Merging that slogan into a bizarre, medievalish, comic allegory to represent empowerment – not to mention male virility – creates a strange sort of message that emphasizes financial empowerment of male right to privilege that ultimately concludes with a belittling of gender identities. Whether this sexism represents medieval practices and/or perceptions does not matter. In fact, inauthenticity allows for increased humor, and humor (sexist or not) sells. The issue instead becomes a question of whether medievalist perceptions of gender have shaped contemporary perceptions of gender or have contemporary perceptions of gender shaped medievalist perceptions of gender. The answer to this chicken-and-egg question can be quite simple: yes. However, the complexities of that “yes” reveal the complexities of gender identity.

There is no question as to the inauthenticity of these commercials. While Pam Clements argues that authenticity “has great significance for medieval studies and medievalism,” it rarely holds significance for commercials, which have a long history of making disingenuous statements, such as Trident chewing gum's “Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.” Capital One randomly mixes cultural identities of Vikings, Visigoths, and Huns to make a new culture of northern European identity. “Each time the real raiders emerge on screen,” observes Alison Tara Walker, “the advertisement overstates their violent tendencies showing their ‘authenticity’ when they run the less-believable versions of themselves off screen.” In response, Jeffrey J. Cohen addressed a letter to “Capital One Marketing Gurus” with tongue planted firmly in cheek: “I ask you to grant these groups their full complexity, a first step toward which might be having the spokes-barbarian no longer declare the tagline ‘What's in your wallet?’ in a seriously poor Cockney accent.”

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Studies in Medievalism
(En)gendering Medievalism
, pp. 21 - 28
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2024

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