Smug Money: “For the next step?” When advertising for banks goes too far

Written by Rebecca O'Connor on 28th April 2016

In the new normal of low interest rates and same-y returns no matter what your investment, it becomes challenging for banks to find unique selling points to make them stand out against their rivals.

For if your product is identical to the next on the shelf, where is there to turn to create and keep customers? Enter the brand masters – agencies filled with the world’s most brilliantly inspiring creativity: the William Blakes and Caravaggios of today, their minds pressed through the mincer of 21st century capitalism and willingly sold to the highest corporate bidders.

The result of the monetisation of creativity is that the world’s biggest companies, which often do the most damage to the planet and society, can afford to pay for lovely, cuddly campaigns that make people feel safe, familiar, warm and cared for.

Banks are among the highest corporate bidders. The bright souls of Soho carefully craft reasons to love the banks that by any rational measure, do little to deserve our love.  And through this process is delivered Lloyds Bank’s latest advertising campaign: “For the next step”.

I normally teeter between detached admiration for the creativity of advertisers and dismay that it has been applied so misguidedly.

But this ad campaign, apparently by a small-ish ad company called adam&eve DDB, surely tips right over into the latter. With pictures of very real looking people going through what those in the industry like to call “key life stages” but to you and me, are buying your first house, getting a divorce and becoming a widow, for example, the ads spill over with emotion, whether it is the sensation of feeling totally overwhelmed with inexplicable joy, or the opposite. And it is the ads’ treatment of the worst times in our life that are particularly ill-judged.

Anyone considering or having been through divorce will know the mind-altering despair and brokenness that can come with a break-up. And anyone who has lost anyone they dearly love and even worse, been left alone as a consequence, will know how that fear, loneliness and desperation can make you almost not want to live yourself – how hard it is to see the point to anything for a while and how nothing makes sense any more.

The images in these ads successfully evoke these emotions. The widow in the funeral car, with tears in her eyes, is clearly feeling all of the above. The couple fighting in the kitchen seem to have nowhere left to turn, and you sense it somehow. These are brilliantly moving images.

But then that tagline: “For the next step” and the Lloyds logo, and the thought that you have just relived, albeit momentarily, scarring moments from your own life as you happened to have passed an AD FOR A BANK, and that’s the point that like me, you might start to wonder what the heck is going on, and why you have been transported emotionally in a way for which you were not prepared, simply because you walked past something.

It could be that I saw the widow image so soon after the death of my own father that I am being over-sensitive. But honestly, I felt invaded. Lloyds doesn’t belong in my thoughts as I empathise with the suffering of another human, much less as I remember my Dad.

The ads might be brilliant. Other ad agencies might be seething with envy. But banks have no business in our emotional lives. True, they provide mortgages, loans, and legal advice in times of great change and these things can be helpful. True, some of the people in call centres do connect with us in a meaningful way, sometimes. But what really helps us to the “next step” at such times? It is human support – empathy, love. It is our friends, our family, the kindness of strangers and community groups. Our strength in tough times might come from small glimpses of hope as leaves appear on the trees in Spring, or a joke on the radio that makes you smile for the first time in months. It does not come from an overdraft extension.

If you feel tempted to like Lloyds or indeed any other bank a little bit more because their ad has manipulated your emotions, or because their branding reflects your desired lifestyle, just step back, examine your subconscious, and wrestle it back. Then ask yourself: does this bank actually, practically do anything to deserve my cash, or is this just branding?