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Pedestrians walk past a Bank of Nova Scotia location in downtown Toronto.

Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

In a cramped, dimly lit kitchen, a woman warms up a bottle in a pot over the stove while her husband quiets their newborn baby.

"I just don't know how we're going to do it all," he says, juggling the tiny hand in his.

The television spot is part of a new campaign just launched by the Bank of Nova Scotia – and it's a new example of bank advertising turning more sombre to reflect the economic climate. In a sector defined in its marketing by sunny tones and visions of leisurely, prosperous retirement, it's a new direction for Canada's third-largest bank.

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"We're in a very unique situation in Canada, in that the economic outlook here is more positive than it is in other parts of the world ... But at the same time I think everyone is grounded in this reality that they need to get back to saving and get back to debt reduction," said Duncan Hannay, Scotia's senior vice-president and head of marketing in Canada. "... Given the macroeconomic environment people are faced with, we think it's relevant to focus on that."

That kind of caution goes beyond just consumer sentiment. Canadians' debt-to-income ratio is higher than ever, hovering at about 153 per cent. And with prolonged low interest rates, there are fears that figure could rise even further – prompting Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney to become increasingly vocal in recent months over the need for Canadians to become more conservative about the amount of debt they carry. According to Mr. Hannay, Mr. Carney's remarks, and the state of the economy they reflect, were a source of inspiration for this campaign.

Conceived by Toronto agency Bensimon Byrne, the campaign features 11 TV spots to be rolled out over the coming weeks, as well as a series of print and outdoor advertising targeted to a number of different demographics in order to market to people based on five-year life stages. The creative effort behind it sought to get away from the sometimes relentless optimism of most bank advertising to reflect reality more closely.

"How often can you see a happy couple that can afford their home?" said agency president Jack Bensimon.

Such a message is unusual in Canada, but has already begun to sprout up in banks ads in the United States. This summer, Ameriprise Financial launched a campaign featuring actor Tommy Lee Jones emphasizing "a future that is better than today." The spots also singled out Ameriprise in its messaging to consumers for "never taking a bailout."

Bank of America has also sought to reposition itself after its brand took a hit during the downturn. Earlier this month, reports emerged that B of A was putting its advertising account up for review, to recover from bad press from the bailouts and from its scuttled attempt to charge consumers a $5-a-month debit card fee. Agencies were asked to refresh its marketing strategy to show consumers that it is a " 'new day' at the bank," according to reports.

For Scotia, the campaign is not about crisis management but about reflecting economic realities. The tone of the couple's conversation about their baby is worried but positive – the husband speaks about wanting to make the right choices, and the ad seeks to position the bank as being able to "help with the money part."

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But it also reflects realities for the bank itself, and for the advertising sector, which has seen businesses hang tighter to their budgets recently: The couple in the ad are not actors – they are real people who wrote to the bank, and then agreed to appear in a spot.

A number of other spots in the campaign depend upon user-generated content that customers shared through social networks, and that Scotia got permission to use: everything from amateur videos to photographs on Internet photo-sharing site Flickr. (One spot, appearing on HGTV Canada targeted to older homeowners putting aside money for renovations, shows a man feverishly ripping apart his cabinets while his wife holding the camera giggles in the background.) This allows Scotia to tap into the advertising trend around user-generated content – and it's cheaper.

A spot featuring a father taking a video of his newborn baby cost "in the $25,000 range" to produce, said Mr. Hannay. That's a significant savings compared with the $400,000 to $500,000 that is common for others in the sector to spend on production for a 30-second TV commercial. It means savings for the bank's marketing team, and suggests that their consumers are not the only ones facing a new reality.

"The approach we've taken with the advertising allows us to be much more efficient in terms of the production of our spots," he said. "Given the environment we're in, we're looking to spend much more carefully in the next little while."

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