Of all the messages the banking industry has tried to convey to a largely embittered consumer base in recent years, "we are not sociopaths" would seem to be a marketing no-brainer.
And yet, in 2009, in a climate of economic panic, a U.S. campaign launched with a sadistic banker as its rakish leading man. Ally Financial Inc.'s commercials attracted attention for mocking its own industry with scenarios in which innocent children were subjected to arbitrary and unfair rules. In perhaps the most memorable one, a chubby youngster looks devastated after failing to notice the fine print saying his toy truck would be taken away. In another, the banker literally steals candy from a child – a bespectacled tyke who is subjected to a chocolate "egg management fee."
Royal Bank of Canada's deal to buy Ally's Canadian arm, announced this week, marks the final demise of those ads. They were actually in heavy rotation in Canada far longer than in the U.S.: Grey Group won the account away from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the New York agency that created the "kids" ads, back in 2011. But the new campaign that Grey created was too focused on the U.S. business, many elements of which were not part of the business here, such as ATMs and credit cards. Knowing that the business was up for sale, there was no reason for Grey Canada to invest in a new campaign for the time being – Ally ceased to even have a marketing team in Canada while it was on the block. Grey continued running the "kids" commercials in Canada as a placeholder until this past July.
As the candid kids and their grey-suited tormentor ride into the advertising sunset, it is unlikely anything resembling the tone of those ads will fill the void.
"If I was RBC's agency, I wouldn't say, 'You know what you guys are missing? Humour.' It'd be a quick way to getting fired," said Stephanie Nerlich, president and CEO of Grey Canada. "It's also not right for the brand. Conservatism and caution is what has kept Canada's banks in such high regard."
The Ally ads raise the issue of the difficulty of using humour in marketing the financial industry. What little does exist in bank ads is uniformly gentle. In one spot, a couple wishes for a better way to manage their finances and a Bank of Montreal adviser appears out of nowhere, causing the wife to lean back and wish for a tropical vacation as well. Toronto-Dominion Bank's long-running series of ads feature a pair of crotchety old men who are like the two critics on "The Muppets," but without the edge.
But while it's relatively rare, humour has been used with good effect in financial advertising. Ms. Nerlich's counterparts at Grey New York created the famous talking baby ads for E*Trade Financial Corp., a campaign that broke with the conventions of the category. It was an especially risky move when the first ad launched in 2007 – in the midst of bank bailouts and ultra-serious bank ads seeking to reestablish trust with the public. The Monday following the Super Bowl debut, E*Trade saw its new account sign-ups increase 113 per cent, and its best January and February results ever.
In 2008, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia needed to create a down-to-earth voice to confront a long-established hostility among consumers to its brand. Its American agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, created an ad within an ad, featuring an out of touch American agency pitching the bank on a campaign filled with ridiculous Australian stereotypes. Everyone loves to hate clueless Americans, as it turns out, and the ad – in which bank executives ax the ad, but keep the new slogan, "determined to be different" – rated extremely well. While cutting the media budget, the campaign had better recall in its first two weeks than any it had done before. What's more, 96 per cent of people who remembered seeing the spot could link it to the brand.
Ally's ads came along in 2009, at a time when "people were pretty dismal," said BBH New York creative director Caprice Yu, who created them.
"It felt like it was the wrong time to make giant claims, or over-promises. It was a very sensitive tone that we picked," she said. "It didn't feel right to come out with something that was laugh out loud, or too chest-thumping. Everyone thought banks were dishonest anyway, so we told the truth."
They did that by creating real indignation: The kids in the ads were not acting. They were all filmed with hidden cameras, capturing the children in ludicrously unfair scenarios, such as when a little girl is given a toy pony, only to be forced to watch her friend receive a real pony.
The ads allowed Ally to position itself as standing apart from that culture of fine print and arbitrary fees. According to Ms. Yu, the ads surpassed all the targets the bank set for client acquisition as a result of the spots.
But not everyone liked the ads. The bullying tone of the banker did not sit well with some – Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business, believes they were "painfully laboured," mean-spirited, and "a touch offensive."
Marketing research shows that humour in general works well in advertising when the target audience is relatively homogenous, Prof. Middleton said. Because humour is so subjective, that can be a problem for companies such as the banks, who are trying to speak to a large swath of the population, of different generations and backgrounds. That's particularly tricky in a diverse market such as Canada.
"Canadian banks are right to be cautious, because of the oligopolistic position they have. We love our banks and we hate our banks. We're glad they're stable and reliable ... but they're also big and bureaucratic and don't care about us that much. So they legitimately need to be cautious," he said.
But precisely because Canada's banks have fared well through the crisis, and had some brand-building help from politicians touting their caution, many believe they could use more humour – as long as it's done well. A Norwegian bank recently aired a popular ad in which a woman wakes up from a drunken evening, married to George Clooney. The punchline? Some folks are lucky; the rest of us need to manage our savings. This kind of humour can help a bank stand out in what is still a relatively stuffy category, many say.
"In any testing methodology on the planet, the thing that gets noticed, is humour," Grey Canada's Ms. Nerlich said. "It's a fine balance – what's funny to me isn't funny to the next guy. ... But I think there's room for more humour."