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Banks need not be scared to use humour in ads. It might just help them

iStock 1355661439 - Global Banking | Finance

Matt Charlton Brothers Sisters - Global Banking | FinanceMatt Charlton, CEO, Brothers & Sisters

Money is a deeply serious business these days, isn’t it? Or certainly you would think so when you take a moment to soak up some of the advertising that our high street banks create. Actually that is not entirely fair as HSBC can bring a twinge of a smile, the bank of Ant & Dec was an attempt to be Saturday Night populist, and Halifax a few years ago used famous cartoon characters such as Top Cat and Benny to raise awareness. And First Direct has whipped up a talking skunk to confront the stink of financial services. So there is some life and personality out there trying to break through. But at the same time none of it is famous in the way financial advertising once was. 

When I first started my advertising career in the mid 1990’s, financial service brands were genuinely exciting to work on. They felt much more like retail brands, full of the real warmth of the high street, where you flit into the bank having just bought a St Michaels chunky knit jumper from M&S to deposit a cheque your gran had given you for your birthday. Banks and the bank manager had always been at the heart of the community and it was their discretion if they lent you the mortgage. They were brands that had a genuine human touch. 

The father of a school friend of mine was the manager of Barclays bank in a Norfolk town and I’d be surprised if he ever had to buy a drink in the local pubs. Another friend of mine recently recounted how his father, in the crash of the early 90’s when interest rates went through not just the roof but up into the clouds, called his bank to say he hadn’t the money to pay his mortgage at the time because his business was struggling. Instead of refusing to listen and bringing the whole thing down – the business and the house – the bank asked what payment he thought he could afford to make a month? “£1” he answered. “Ok sir” they replied and he did indeed pay £1 a month for a whole year until his business recovered. So banks were real people with real feelings, and as such their advertising could feel like real popular culture.

Perhaps one of the most popular ad campaigns of its time and right up there the absolute greats was Rowan Atkinson’s work for Barclaycard – those of you old enough will remember his sidekick Boff and the classic line “smell those twarag camp fires”. It was a credit card, it had a pretty high interest rate but who cared because the ads were funnier than the TV shows they sat between. In fact, so good was the character that Atkinson developed it into the movie character Johnny English, which is still making people laugh. 

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie would romp up the high street with the “You’ll get a smarter investor at Alliance and Leicester” in a series of ads that involved the pompous Fry falling flat on his face investing in the wrong stuff. It was the first and only time we were told to invest in “Euro reversible trouser bonds” or “Never invest in anything with orange in the logo”. 

Both campaigns generated enormous success by following an incredibly simple formula: taking the side of the ordinary person in the street vs the entitled pompous British know all – something us British love and a classic comedy set up. I remember the whole family laughing at these ads and mimicking the lines from them in everyday life. Boff, having been arrested and in some far-flung jail, mistakes the Ambassador who has come to help him in his white dinner suit for the waiter. “Ooh dry white wine” says Boff. “I’m sorry, the bars are closed” says the Ambassador, dinging the bars of the jail. I lost count of the number of times I used the “dry white wine” line in real life. 

Halifax leapt into popular culture with Howard, their member of staff who became nationally famous for singing and dancing his way to “who gives you extra” set to the song of “who let the dogs out”. It’s as populist and fun as my own agency’s current campaign for We Buy Any Car. People want to be entertained and if you can give them a great ear worm or catch phrase they may still remember you years later. 

So, why have so few banking campaigns repeated the kind of success I’ve oozed over here? 

Banks have a battering with multiple issues that may make them nervous about reaching for such populism. In addition they have lost a lot of the human touch and become driven by technology. They have always worried that people don’t want to put their money in an institution that makes you laugh.  

Does any of that stop the kind of culturally famous campaigns we used to have? I suspect not. If a bank came out and made the equivalent of “Should have gone to Specsavers” and really cheered up the nation at a time when we all need it, I think the populist majority would love them for it. 

I remember NatWest in the late 90’s having an ad using Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life” as the music.  Let’s have some more of that please. 

Global Banking & Finance Review


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