Ad Watch: Wonga

At least they seem to have jettisoned the creepy puppets.

Wonga, that denizen of the modern age, has branched out. No longer just providing desperate people short term loans at stupidly high interest rates, with the help of a series of disturbingly lifelike granny puppets, they are now turning their hand to sorting out the UK's flagging business sector as well. Nice of them. Loans of £3,000 to £10,000 will be available for terms of between one and 52 weeks to viable business clients. Appropriately, a new advert campaign is needed to spread the word (just in case all the negative articles in the press didn't do the job quite well enough). Lo and behold, the buses of London are adorned with Wonga adverts.

To be fair, compared to the frankly terrifying old people grooving in an old people's home mysteriously well equipped with DJ-ing accessories and hope, these adverts are fairly inoffensive. They suffer terribly from what is known as the Innocent Smoothie disease, greeting the viewer with a friendly upbeat tone that masks the sad fact that they are about to mug you of 4,214 per cent APR, or of £2 for a bottle of mushed up fruit. But this is business, people. So the adverts are black, as opposed to Wonga's usual colour palate of friendly, non repossessing your house royal blue. Black is serious, a good colour for business, which is also serious. It doesn't get more nuanced than that.

The slogans are even better.

“Our branch address? Wongaforbusiness.co.uk”

“Loans 24/7 because business isn't 9-5”

“Business loans: think outside the bank”

Clever, aren't they? Notice how they take a well known business slogan and gently subvert it. It's because they're innovative. As the chief executive said in a recent interview with the Guardian, the company wants to "innovate around the edges”, acting as “the Amazon of financial services.” And why wouldn't you want to be known as that? It's not as if Amazon ever did anything a bit dodgy.

The latest Wonga news is that they have been warned by the Office of Fair Trading about their “aggressive” debt collection, after sending threatening letters and accusing customers of being fraudsters. Not so fluffy now. They are also getting involved in promoting financial literacy in schools, an area that is admittedly much wanting, but one that isn't an obvious move for a company reviled for its irresponsible lending. Indeed, it seems like not a day goes by when the company isn't in the news. Maybe they didn't even need to pay for those bus ads. Still, at least they seem to have jettisoned the creepy puppets.

They say: "Young, entrepreneurial companies represent our best hope of a recovery, yet many are struggling because they can't get quick access to the credit that they need to cope with everyday challenges”

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.