Where would financial advertising be without bad puns?

Yes, folks, once again I’m down in the tube spotting rotten ads and pondering about them.  This time it’s a Hitachi Personal Finance ad (no, me neither, I thought they did drills and music centres) offering personal loans at 3.8%.

The ad, which exists in a variety of shapes and sizes, shows a large picture of a brightly-coloured hot air balloon, and a headline – you’re probably ahead of me – that says:  No hot air.  Just low rates.  There’s then a big graphic showing the 3.8% figure, and there’s some copy and a logo.

All this is obviously a response, though not a very good one, to the age-old financial services advertising problem of how-do-we-get-a-picture-in.  We want a picture because, well, because we do.  Our first thought is to show a picture of something that someone is buying with a loan, most obviously a car or possibly a kitchen. But these won’t do because they’re too specific – these are multi-purpose personal loans, not car loans or home improvement loans.  Our second thought is to show some happy loan-obtaining people, but again they’re too specific – what age?  what gender?  what ethnicity? – and also of course very generic.

So then you think about the brand.  Does Hitachi Personal Finance lay claim to any attributes that take you anywhere?  Well, yes, kind of:  it’s all about ease and simplicity.  How can we visualise ease and simplicity, and by the way for budget reasons it’ll have to be with a royalty-free stock shot?  Via a pun, of course.  If the headline says “No hot air” – which is actually to do with the absence of pomposity or self-importance, but close enough – we can visualise a quite different kind of hot air, which is the sort you find in balloons.  Bingo.  An on-brand idea which – with the help of a pun – gives us a large, colourful visual which is available royalty-free.

And as an added bonus, a hot air balloon gives us access to a fairly rich seam of further punning language.  No big surprise that the first sentence of the copy says something about “getting your plans off the ground.”

A very great deal of the time, this is a pretty genuine summary of how the so-called creative process works.  It hinges on the availability of a suitable pun, to bolt together something we more or less want to say with something we more or less want to show.

My question, of course, is whether this rather esoteric game serves any remotely useful purpose.  Would the ad be better, or worse, if it just said “Personal loans from just 3.8%“?  Or, if the advertiser was determined to include the brand message, “Simple, straightforward personal loans from just 3.8%”?

As a Libran, I can perfectly well argue this either way.  One thing’s for sure:  it isn’t a good ad.  It’s cliched, mechanical, utterly formulaic – the kind of ad which, in the very near future, will be produced by a piece of software very probably made by Hitachi, without any human intervention at all.  But, bad as it is, is it not also true that a) it communicates reasonably clearly, and b) on the whole it’s nicer to see stock shots of hot air balloons in the underground rather than just words and numbers?

I’m not sure.  I’m pretty sure the creative team who’ve produced this have been completely wasting their time.  But maybe they’ve added a tiny amount of value with their silly pun and their boring balloon pic.




Is privatising risk the big theme of this century?

No, probably not, to be honest – I don’t suppose it’s up at quite the same level as Climate Change, or Militant Islam, or The Middle-Class Defection To Aldi And Lidl.  But still, it is big – and it gets bigger the more you look at it.

For example.  I’ve written before about various aspects of the rolling-back of employers’ responsibilities to their employees, particularly with regard to the move from DB to DC pensions.  DB pensions, the employer take the risk; DC pensions, the employee takes the risk.  You can make the equivalent point about a lot of the unwinding of the welfare state, whether across the board or on a means-tested basis for the more affluent.

I must admit, though, that until I read a letter in one of the weekend’s papers, I hadn’t really clocked that the whole zero-hours contracts thing is part of the same trend.

A bloke who runs some care homes wrote a measured, sensible letter explaining very clearly why zero-hours contracts are so important and valuable in his business.  They mean that if residents at his home die, or have to be taken to hospital, he can immediately cut back the hours of his carers so he isn’t wasting money, at least until he gets a new resident to fill the gap.  This, he told us, makes a big difference to the profitability of his business.

I couldn’t help wondering, though, how the same storyline looked to the carers.  I thought they’d probably say it’s bad enough that they’re on or near minimum wage, and even worse that at a moment’s notice, as a result of events entirely outside their control, even these small amounts can be reduced to much less or even to nothing.  What’s happening here, unmistakeably, is that the carers’ earnings, or lack of them, are playing a vital role in protecting the employer’s bottom line.

I suppose it’s stupid and sentimental to hark back to the days of paternalistic employers who felt a responsibility to their workforces, but then again stupid and sentimental are my middle names.  Employers didn’t offer much to their people in return for their efforts, but they did offer a degree of security.  OK, not that high a degree – if it looked as if the work was turning down significantly and permanently, redundancies would quickly follow – but at least the security of earnings which would benefit from a bit of smoothing against short-term blips in the workload.

Now any notion of that kind of security is fast evaporating.  Zero-hours contracts are the most pernicious example, because the poor bloody care workers, or east European cauliflower-pickers, or whatever they may be, are still supposed to maintain a completely unrewarded loyalty to the employer such that they’re always available to take on a few hours’ work and so are not free to look for alternative sources of income elsewhere.  In my industry, though, the slightly-less-inhuman alternative is the ever-growing reliance on freelancers.

Back in the day when I was involved in running agencies, my key ambition – not, I have to say, always achieved, but still – was to recruit and retain a really great team of people.  A team who totally bought in to what we were trying to do, understood how to go about doing it, and enjoyed working with each other to that end.

Not any more.  The smart manager of a medium-sized agency is desperate to take on the very smallest number of people possible.  Every day spent without hiring anybody is a day well spent.  The more the work can be done by here-today-gone-tomorrow freelancers, with no commitment, little understanding and no experience of working with the other people on the team, the happier the agency’s management will be.

Are the financial pressures on agencies, or the increasingly short-term nature of client relationships, now so hard to manage that this kind of approach is essential?  I don’t know. (What I do know is that since freelance rates are typically a good deal higher than employed rates, the reliance on temporary staff can be fantastically expensive and inefficient when you need them to handle an ongoing workload:  a good friend has been working for a very large financial institution for nearly three years now on a freelance rate that’s well over double the amount he’d have wanted for a full-time role.)

But anyway.  On the whole, I can see why all this fiddling about with employees’ hours is good for employers, in all sorts of organisations from care homes to advertising agencies (not all that much of a distance, I hear you say).  But most of the time, it’s bloody awful for most employees.

Naively, I thought we were a bit better than that.  I suppose perhaps we stopped  being a bit better than that when the cake started to show signs of shrinking.


Is half an explanation better than no explanation at all?

The financial industry is always in a state of mild anxiety about its ability to explain things to people, but from time to time something happens so that the mild anxiety wells up into a full-scale paranoia.

At the moment the thing that’s happening is all the Pensions Freedom excitement, which confronts a lot of people with a number of important new choices.  What pretty much everyone really needs is good, personal, individual advice on what they should do.  But for one reason or another this won’t be widely available, so the industry is massively hyped up about how consumers can be guided through the whole situation so that they understand it all well enough to make good decisions for themselves.

You can find an example of the kind of output that’s resulting from this paroxysm here:  http://quietroom.co.uk/discuss/3pensionoptions/.  It’s a little three-minute video made by the specialist communications consultancy Quietroom, which is an excellent company for which I have the highest regard.

I don’t, however, have much regard for this video.  I can’t say I’m keen on the patronising tone or the cliched imagery – as a creative director on investment accounts, I’ve turned down whole orchards-full of tired old metaphors about tending and growing crops and reaping harvests.  But that’s not important.  My real issue is that the whole issue of decision-making around pensions is so complicated, and so profoundly affected by individual circumstances, that I just can’t see how the tiny amount of insight provided by a little film like this makes any worthwhile difference.

In fact, I think I could argue that the potential for mis-understanding from points that are either not explained or explained too superficially is so great that on the whole, the film – even if carefully absorbed – is likely to do more harm than good.  It doesn’t explain, for example, that all of this only applies to people with DC pensions, not to those – I believe still the majority – retiring with DB pensions.  It doesn’t explain that for those with DC pots of less than, say, about £50,000 (some would say £100,000), which is in fact the huge majority of people, drawdown isn’t really a sensible option.  It doesn’t really explain a clear difference between the first  main option, drawdown, and the second, which is UFPLS (although it does rightly avoid using this term).  And it doesn’t explain how annuities are evolving – for example those now offering very long guaranteed periods – to deal with some of the aspects that people really don’t like about them.

I’m not blaming the film for any of this.  If I’m blaming it for anything at all, then it’s only for biting off more than it can chew.  But the point I do want to make – regular readers will have seen this coming – is that if we do want to make financial services easier for people to operate for themselves, we’re going to have to make it incredibly much easier for them to do so.  The whole idea of “educating” consumers – whether strategically, over years of classroom learning, or tactically, through little three-minute videos – is never, ever going to work.

After you’ve watched Quietroom’s little video – even though it only raises a small fraction of the things you ought to be thinking about – the only thing you feel is much more confused and unsure about what you ought to be doing.  I suppose this might be marginally useful if you had previously expected to take all your money out in cash and had failed to realise the tax consequences, but otherwise it’s hard to see how anyone will be better off.

I’ve grumbled before about the way that the financial industry – unlike any others – still believes it need to transform consumers’ levels of knowledge and understanding before it can successfully communicate with them.  This is a completely back-to-front way of thinking.  We have to do everything we do on the basis of a clear-sighted understanding of how consumers are, not how we’d like them to become.

All this pensions hoo-ha is just a horribly clear demonstration of how far away we still are from getting this.


Why I’m stealing Quietroom’s formula for readable financial copy

I’ve said before, and many times over the years, that too many people responsible for financial copy massively over-prioritise clarity.

Clarity is good, but it’s not enough.  Copy can be as clear as anything, but if it’s also so desperately dull that people lose the will to live long before they finish reading it, you can’t really claim much success.

My friends at the specialist consultancy Quietroom take this thought one stage further.  They say that the formula for readable copy includes two other essential attributes:  as well as being clear, it must be vivid and real.

That sounds about right to me.  I hope they won’t mind if I nick it.