Credit card companies will be angling for front-row prominence as the curtain comes down Thursday night on "Seinfeld."
MasterCard International and Visa U.S.A. have bought advertising time on what is sure to be one of the most-watched programs in television history.
American Express Co., which usually tries to keep high-profile media buys like this under wraps until the event, is also likely to get into the act because the program's star, Jerry Seinfeld, is a company spokesman.
As a place for advertisers to be, the "Seinfeld" finale rivals the Super Bowl-the prices are comparable-and may turn out even better, said Larry Flanagan, MasterCard's vice president of U.S. advertising.
"Unlike the Super Bowl, the viewership will be very high from the beginning of the program to the end," he said. "It is a milestone event and will attract (regular 'Seinfeld' fans) in addition to casual viewers who want to see the last episode."
Early reports indicated NBC was trying to charge $2 million for a 30- second spot, well above the $1.3 million for the Super Bowl in January. Advertising Age reported the average cost ended up around $1.8 million, with some companies trying to bid it down to $1.5 million. That would still beat the Super Bowl record.
Sony Pictures Entertainment and Anheuser-Busch are among the other confirmed advertisers on the hourlong special, which will be preceded by an hour of highlights from past episodes.
Like the Super Bowl, "Seinfeld" affords "a golden opportunity to show something new and different, as opposed to a variation on a theme," said Stanley W. Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates, an Arvada, Colo., consulting firm. "If you are simply telling the same story, then you are probably not going to get the response and appeal."
Mr. Anderson said AT&T Universal Card Services Corp., now a Citicorp subsidiary, took advantage of the Academy Awards ceremony in 1990 to usher in its "no fee for life" promise, which had a lasting impact.
On "Seinfeld," Visa plans to premiere a 30-second commercial, "The Attic," another in the series spotlighting merchants that do not accept American Express.
The spot shows twentysomethings in a Las Vegas vintage clothing store trying on everything from hip-huggers and go-go boots to leisure suits and patent leather shoes. "The only thing that is out of style is using American Express," says the voiceover.
The Attic store "could very well be the kind of place where some of the characters on 'Seinfeld' would go," said Elizabeth Silver, vice president of advertising, Visa U.S.A. She said the commercial will continue to run in rotation with others for about a year.
Visa was willing to pay the high price because the projected audience numbers "are huge. It will be young, old, male, female, urban, rural, maybe even people who don't watch television," Ms. Silver said.
MasterCard, meanwhile, will continue its "Priceless Moments" campaign, which began last October.
"Because the show is getting so much publicity, it will get an even broader audience than it normally has," age groups ranging from 18 to 54, said Mr. Flanagan of MasterCard. "That lines up perfectly with our demographic base."
MasterCard will also advertise during the season-ending episode of the medical drama "ER," which follows "Seinfeld."
Adding to the card industry intrigue is American Express' public silence about its plans. Jerry Seinfeld has been working for American Express five years and helped write the recent ad featuring himself and the animated Superman character. It debuted during the Academy Awards telecast in March.
After the top-rated NBC show closes, "we will continue to have new American Express advertisements featuring Jerry Seinfeld," said an Amex spokeswoman.
Alvin Schechter, chairman of Interbrand Corp., a New York-based corporate identity consulting firm, said brands like Coca-Cola, Visa, and MasterCard had become "almost myths" through advertising. Their history "adds luster to ... this event."
"It is an event of such magnitude because of the audience it reaches," Mr. Schechter said. "It is almost like a party to which one has to be invited."