Clever Ads Can Backfire on Financial Marketers Who Overlook Gaffes

When everyone in Marketing thinks the latest headline is absolutely brilliant, stop! That's when you call 'Time Out' and get a second opinion from someone outside the department. When social media firestorms can catch in minutes, you don't want to send out messages no one inside saw as insensitive, biased or inflammatory — but the public does.

The worst thing about self-inflicted wounds in marketing is that they can be avoided — if an institution builds some element of review into its creative process.

TD Bank triggered a media storm in Boston when a single branch poster promoting debit card replacement service was interpreted by some as culturally insensitive, and by others as racist.

No financial marketer intentionally writes a headline alienating a chunk of the marketplace or mutilating the organization’s own reputation. The incident — which triggered a Twitter storm and quickly thereafter the removal of the ad and an apology by the bank — underscores the minefield that marketers must navigate every day and the safeguards that must be in place anytime creative is produced.

Photo Credit: Sourced from Reilly Hay’s tweet stream.

This TD Bank ad referred to Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. The area includes a large African-American population. As tweeted by Reilly Hay: “If you know Boston stereotypes, you know that lost in Dorchester is code for stolen. Which sucks, because to get stolen from Dorchester you need to go through the concepts of low-income and, most importantly, black and brown.”

The bank removed the poster and stated that, “We are sorry that an ad that appeared in one of our stores was insensitive to the Dorchester community.” The bank added that it “does not reflect our core values around diversity and inclusion.”

How can other financial institutions avoid such errors?

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How Banking Players Shoot Themselves in the Foot

TD Bank isn’t the first financial institution to injure itself and it won’t be the last. Several factors contribute to the frequency of these kind of mistakes.

Creative tension is always present in relationships between financial marketers and managers. Marketers strive to create messages that grab attention. They push barriers or break convention to cut through the noise. Managers, on the other hand, run highly regulated organizations that avoid taking unnecessary risks.

“What safeguards are in place in your institution to avoid culturally offensive mistakes and more broadly, ineffective, wasteful advertising?”

The yin and yang of these opposites usually produce a workable balance. But occasionally the process fails and an errant massage slips through.

Comedians are known for going over the line. But it’s just as common among copywriters striving to stand out. Their misjudgments can produce work that is off the mark, ineffective, sophomoric or even offensive.

It’s an occupational hazard. Mistakes are inevitable. However, TD’s faux pas suggests more than a simple mistake. It reveals a failure in the creative process, and raises a bigger question that should be considered by banks and credit unions of all sizes:

What safeguards are in place in our institution to avoid culturally offensive mistakes and more broadly, ineffective, wasteful advertising?

Creative faux pas are less of a problem at small institutions, where the distance between marketer and consumer is short. Marketers in smaller banks and credit unions tend to be closer to consumers than marketers at larger institutions where there’s likely to be more management levels, more external agencies, and fewer people with local roots.

Community bank marketers are more likely to be generalists with a variety of responsibilities that give them deeper knowledge of their geographic area, workings of the bank and even regulatory issues. In addition to copywriting, their job might include representing Marketing in interdepartmental meetings. This can heighten their knowledge of bank policies and concerns. Perhaps they manage community events, branching strategies or local outreach efforts. All of that provides a more intimate knowledge of the marketplace, bank priorities and cultural sensitivities.

Every Line Deserves at Least a ‘Second Set of Eyes’

The final step in every creative process should include a rigorous functional and cultural review of the program. It must answer a series of questions:

  1. Does the ad achieve campaign objectives?
  2. Does it target the appropriate market with the right message through the most economical channels?
  3. Is the language and tone appropriate for all audiences?
  4. Do any translations reflect the market’s ethnic characteristics?

A formal review step can catch more than a cultural blunder or an error of poor taste. It can spot a poor-performing campaign. It will look at the target market, illustrations, design, and language. A creative ad deserves maximum exposure and a carefully considered communication strategy. All components must work together.

It’s easy to fall in love with a fun headline. But it’s harder to be the Negative Nancy who questions whether the creative copy fulfills the larger goals of the program.

Ad headlines using a double-entendre, irony or even a slide-off-the-tongue alliteration deserve special attention. They may win kudos in industry competitions but each risks losing a percentage of consumers who do not get the joke, the irony or the reference.

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Maybe Someone Else Should Review Your Marketing

Copy can be too creative, too hip. This erodes readership and wastes money, time and talent.

“TD Bank’s writer used an attention-grabbing allusion that ‘succeeded’ too well because it was also perceived by many as culturally offensive.”

In the case of the TD Bank poster, the writer used an attention-grabbing allusion that “succeeded” too well because it was also perceived by many as culturally offensive. This failure in the creative process that should serve as a reminder for every financial institution that a cursory review of the final product is often not enough.

Here’s the risk: Marketing departments can become homogeneous, self-applauding organizations sharing similar values, lifestyles and sensibilities that do not resemble the broader marketplace. Their collective work may work in their world, but therefore may inadvertently offend others.

The review process needn’t be complex. It can be as simple as circulating the ad to an email list of culturally and demographically diverse individuals. Or as formal as a diverse committee that meets regularly to review campaigns and exchange perceptions. In some cases, a focus group can be assembled to provide further assurance.

But someone besides the creators should be looking before anything gets near the public.

Kevin Tynan is a retired bank marketing executive, consultant and author living in Chicago.

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