Close-Up: Live issue - Should banks' ad strategies change?

Does humorous advertising have a place in the current economic climate, Caroline Lovell asks.

With the impending doom of the credit crunch, the Northern Rock fiasco, tumbling house prices and rocketing mortgage interest rates, the UK's financial health is no laughing matter. But despite this unstable climate, banks are continuing to use comedy in their advertising.

"Frivolous", "ambulance-chasing" and "undermining" are just some of the adjectives thrown around by industry commentators to slate recent bank ads, which often feature idiotic characters from the banking world in what are effectively comedy sketches.

Now, however, the Axa account is up for pitch and Halifax is reviewing its business, which is currently with Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, after an eight-year stint with Howard and his singing colleagues. So does this mean that the big banks have realised that change is needed?

Industry experts are quick to dismiss a link between the credit crunch and the two financial services companies pitching their business, and instead place the blame on tired campaigns and relationship breakdowns.

Chris Blackhurst, the City editor of the Evening Standard, agrees with this, and believes that more mature advertising has to become the norm: "Banks need to be more responsible and reassuring and less aggressive and direct in their ads. They need to explain more about what they stand for and who they are."

It is a sentiment shared by Peter Gandolfi, the head of brand strategy at Nationwide, who argues that some banks will now have to reposition their advertising to be "in tune" with consumers in the financial downturn.

"We know that, in difficult times, the consumer looks for reassurance, safety and security, so the brand challenge for all is to find a way of doing that which is both appropriate and credible but still very motivating," he says.

One of the biggest new campaigns of last year was Lloyds TSB's "for the journey", which used sweet animation to send a simplistic and reassuring message about their services to customers, instead of using the well-worn comedy formula.

So, is comedy off the menu now that people are struggling through economic difficulties? Nigel Gilbert, the group marketing director of Lloyds TSB, claims that he aims to maintain the bank's integrity by not using comedy to knock its competitors.

However, there are two sides to the argument. As Michelle McEttrick, the business director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, explains: "A lot of banks have had success in different environments with current strategies. It's bound to work in both ways. When times are tough, a laugh and a smile can be good, but it can also come across as inappropriate. When customers are nervous about the future, banks should position themselves as the calm in the storm. It will be interesting to see the degree to which they can do that."

It seems that there is at least one point everyone agrees upon - that a drop in spend is extremely likely.

Richard Warren, the director of communications strategy at DLKW, says: "There's a limit to how much a bank can advertise. It's a trade-off between advertising and the products and services you offer, and I think it will fall more on the latter than on the former until the financial state changes."

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AGENCY HEAD - Elliot Moss, managing director, Leagas Delaney

"In a financial crisis, the banks might move back from idiotic humour to gentle humour, but you don't have to stop being funny.

"The strategy would remain the same, but the expression of that strategy may change: a subtle but important distinction. If the strategy suddenly changed, a consumer wouldn't believe it.

"Money is a very emotive thing for human beings. The use of humour makes money interesting and engaging, otherwise it is rather dull. So, yes, humour has a role, but it's how you use that humour. It works if it's done intelligently."

AGENCY HEAD - Richard Warren, director of communications strategy, Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners

"It's difficult to base an ad on a negative premise. The problem is that banks are grouped together and viewed in a bad light. People's confidence and trust in banks is low, and it's all you can achieve just to be liked.

"All we can change is the image. But we have genuinely got to offer something substantial and give something back. The big issue in banking is service, but we have tiptoed around this area.

"Banks are a low-interest category, but they should now talk issues of substance and focus on their product and services."

CLIENT - Nigel Gilbert, group marketing director, Lloyds TSB

"It is dangerous and unnecessary for us as an industry to depict ourselves in a negative way.

"It is also important that, in the role we play in people's lives, we take a responsible attitude and are respectful and understanding of the situation that our customers find themselves in without taking a rise out of our competitors.

"Comedy can be a valuable way of getting a message across, but I think it's actually more effective to talk to people in a way that suggests you are empathetic and see them as intellectual people who understand your message."

FINANCIAL EXPERT - Chris Blackhurst, City editor, Evening Standard

"Now is not the time to have the smiley face from HBOS. People feel very uncertain and are seeking advice and comfort rather than a song.

"Banks have an awfully long way to go before they reach the stage when they are trusted. The public are not stupid. At the very least, they should look at what messages they are saying in their advertising.

"The public expects a degree of humility, and that is not coming across at all. It's our money that is bailing them out, but we are not seeing signs of sorrow from anyone."