Advertising - Graham Bendel on how love can't buy you money
In a TV commercial for the Association of Investment Trusts (AITC), a man questions the point of a barbecue he is holding in his garden. "Have sausages made thousands of people thousands of pounds?" he asks, surveying the cheery milieu. Eventually, he throws all his friends out, having realised that their closeness to him does not directly lead to an increase in his savings. He is left in solitude - suddenly a pariah. Another TV advert in the same campaign shows a woman, wearing a nightdress, leaping from a romantic tussle with her husband and decrying the merits of "rumpy-pumpy" over financial investment. In another, a father walks away from his son's game of "catchy-catch", leaving the bemused child holding the ball but no one to play with. Surely this can't make people part with their money? Surely no one would think of themselves as this dysfunctional?
There is nothing new to this approach - brands are constantly taking risks by sending out negative messages. Roy Brooks, a well-known estate agent in the 1960s, found huge custom by writing painfully honest copy: he would describe his clients' properties as having "no room to swing a cat". More recently, Marmite's "Love it or hate it" campaign (featuring people practically retching after trying the stuff) seemed quite a gamble - or would have done, had the company not expertly understood its market. Still, this AITC advert, in its assertiveness, stands out as being authentically repellent, even creepy. Beneath the folly, it is cold and sinister. Horseplay, for sure, but there is a certain stink about it.
The campaign addresses our concern that money, in time, will corrode the meaningful, immaterial fabric of our lives: love, fun, social interaction, even sex. It taps into our baser instincts - the pursuit of money at the expense of other, more important things in life. This elemental truth renders the irony smug and charmless.
The tone of the campaign is at odds with the current trend for all things feminised. While it is the heart, emotion and feelings that can unfasten the tightest consumer purse strings (especially in this sector), the campaign goes hurtling in the opposite direction. Here, you are not made to feel good, sucked up to, or grinned at, all Blair-like. Instead, the advertisers have forsaken the soothing narration, sentimentality, the usual toadying - even the singing - for an altogether harsher tone. Yet despite its nihilistic swagger, it is really the same old suit.
The agency responsible for the AITC adverts, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, explains the odd behaviour of the characters in them as a kind of "neo-religious enlightenment". Supposedly, they have all seen the light and, bathed in its illumination, have taken the road not to Damascus, but to the nearest shares office. Dominic Stinton of HHCL acknowledges that some might take it too seriously: one e-mail criticised the ads for not being in "the Christian way".
The target age-range of 35- to 55-year-olds is not particularly used to this offbeat approach to financial marketing. Usually, graphs and statistics are as fun as it gets. So at least this has attitude, right?
It does, but in small, ultra-safe doses. It dips its toes in the same cultural tide that tolerates such misanthropy (think Eminem, The Eleven O'Clock Show and so on), on the grounds that if you have the backbone to say something, whatever your motives, then you should be applauded for it. And as long as it could be deemed ironic or satirical, no one is going to burn in hell.
Investment trusts, unlike cars or shampoo, are low-interest products. They are not priorities. These are fast, work-obsessed times, and this campaign reflects the way society has changed. Just as much as any documentary, report or modern art exhibit, these adverts hint, in effect, at an increasing paucity of our own personal affairs, and the choice that we continually make between living life and actually affording it. But I'm not sure that was the point.