11 September 2015
‘I don’t know which way to turn…’
‘I honestly didn’t think I’d be in here today…’
‘You have no idea how hard this is…’
‘I just hope that people can learn from my mistakes…’
‘I just don’t know how much more I can give…’
‘The further I look back, the more I discover…’
There is something joyfully British about the Nationwide Sponsors of Real Life on ITV created by creative agency Mr. President. They revel in drab ordinariness.
Eliciting shared values through setting oneself against a social attitude is a well worn advertising ploy. And reveling in ordinariness and the familiar, is a default British position and one brands often use in order to build complicity with their audience.
A core principle of semiotics is that meaning is generated via oppositions. We know and like VW because it is solid and reliable, not flashy or eye catching. Buy Persil because it is for permissive parents not being too precious about their kids getting dirty i.e. ‘Dirt is Good’. The supermarket Aldi sets itself against the spin of brand labels by promoting the unadorned stuffness of their goods, commodities at bargain prices “Like Brands. But Cheaper”.
Nationwide is tilting at something similar with the Proud Supporters spots. These short spots position Nationwide shrewdly as a no nonsense people’s champion that is against artifice and that understands the gritty everyday. The short stings work by gaining our attention as schmaltzy tension points you’d expect to see in soaps or melodrama. Then they flip the script to show the individual in question is in fact on a routine visit to the bank. On each occasion, the customer expresses anguish or emotional distress and on each occasion the bank employee reveals their concerns to be overblown chimeras.
The camera goes tight on the face of the individual using the close up to lay emphasis on their inner world, then pulls back to a wider shot to show the mundane interior of a local bank branch. Paralleling this is a shrewd use of music which marks the punch line with the abrupt switch from clichéd mournful piano music shifting to the relative silence of banal office noise.
The stings pack a lot of meaning into the 10 or so seconds. Characters having emotional meltdowns on soap operas, fly on the wall documentaries or reality shows have become clichés of British TV. The ambiguity of scripted so-called ‘factual’ shows causes us to question what is real and what fake. But not only are the stings parodying television discourse, but they also slyly pastiche a non British cultural trait. They are voicing dismay at an confessional, shrill, oversharing, overly intimate, hyperbolic, gushing emotional expression more characteristic of the US or the Mediterreanean.
Anthropologist Kate Fox in her book Watching the English called this the ‘come off it’ syndrome, aimed at undercutting pomposity or earnestness.
Phlegmatic, stoic, “mustn’t grumble”, British Keep Calm and Carry On rules! This is a big cultural fault line I believe between the UK and US. I have long observed that the bar for ‘normality’ in the public eye is higher, the mood more euphoric, the finish glossier in the US than the UK. Being one’s best is a duty. This is a truth that brands such as Budweiser, in their sponsorship of the Premiership have played upon. Moneysupermarket.com have mined a similar seam in their communication. I guess this is emblematic of a culture that exalts achievement success and novelty versus a culture that loves lingering on awkwardness, anatomizing failure and that has a sneaking admiration for underachievement, blasé nonchalance, the underdog and blatant crapness.
Since the downturn in early 2009, British retail banks have been falling over themselves to demonstrate care, trustworthiness and a sort of solidarity to a rightly sceptical British population through portraying slice of life narratives. This has typically entailed showing convivial areas, intergenerational families and acts of generosity and empathy. At best these are bland observational platitudes, at worst blatant pandering and condescension.
For quite a while, post downturn, banking ads became akin to party political manifestos. They promised aspiration for the individual, but always couched within the envelope of social cohesion and communitarianism. From the childlike, hand drawn illustration of TSB’s Local Bank ads to Halifaxes unsung laboring heroes, to Natwest’s faux co-operative customer charter to Barclays philanthropic Digital Eagles outreach team to Santander’s celebrity becoming unusually chummy with common folk. Nationwide too have ads in this vein. Their 2014 We Think It’s People campaign was sentimental encomium to, er, everyone. And their 2015 TV ad On Your Side for Generations, showcased the kindness of strangers with a Nationwide employee returning, via Twitter feed, a father’s jumper, a present from his son, found on a local bus. Only HSBC has stayed aloof, and sagacious, above it all, meditating in its mountaintop pagoda. But with the apparent uptick in the UK economy I sense we may be at the start of another turn of the wheel.
The lumpen homogeneity of banking advertising won’t last forever. I predict communication that synthesizes the community and trust building motif with bolder, more truly differentiated brand messaging.