The Ugly Downside of Bank Bashing Ads

J.D. Powers recently found that consumers feel a bank’s brand is more important than its pricing or product availability, which must make it tough for folks to find bearable financial providers, because another study earlier this year found that consumers now put banking in the same ultra-reviled category that was once reserved solely for big tobacco.

If the financial industry wants to find the culprit behind their branding woes, it needs to look no further than itself. Surely the high-risk actions taken by financial institutions during the subprime heyday have left nasty scars on the industry’s image. But financial institutions of all kinds have been making banks the subject of ridicule in their ads for decades.

In this TV spot circa 2007, WaMu is keeping a bunch of bankers in its lab. The affable host says, “It’s simple. If these stodgy, old bankers think an idea is wrong, we know it’s right.” Caged bankers were the butt of WaMu’s jokes in a popular ad campaign that lasted just up until its implosion.

Reality Check: It may be easy and effective for financial marketers to make their competitors look bad, but if you spend enough time telling people your industry sucks, they’ll believe it.

Considering people’s frustrations with the financial industry, it’s obvious why so many banks and credit unions would take their marketing in this direction. It’s not wrong at all for a financial institution that is truly superior to make its point by drawing stark contrasts between themselves and their competitor(s). In fact, when marketing anything, this has proven to be one of the most effective methods to shape people’s perceptions. That’s why politicians always “go negative.” By shaming your competition, you implicitly align yourself with all things wholesome and righteous (or so the theory goes).

The problem is that so many financial institutions are collectively sending the same, consistent message — “the other guy sucks” — consumers will just lump everyone in the same sucky category, right alongside big tobacco. “Banks? Bah…they’re all the same.”

Key Questions:

  • How can financial institutions rebuild consumer trust when so many of the industry’s own marketing messages say bankers are untrustworthy scum?
  • Do consumers really see a difference between banks and credit unions?
  • At what point can the financial industry no longer withstand the mockery, self-loathing and shame it heaps on itself?

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