Scepticism has a solid place in the history of British philosophical enquiry. Back in the 18th century, empiricists such as David Hume dedicated their lives to the importance of suspending belief in things for which there is insufficient evidence through experience.
On the whole, it’s a tradition our culture has maintained. Scepticism rears up in daily life all the time – for example, when your mother-in-law asks how you are, and you think: ‘Is the asking of this question sufficient evidence for me to believe that you really are genuinely interested in how I am?’
Yet at some point, I would argue in the last two years, and possibly almost entirely as a result of a combination of Richard Curtis and John Lewis, we abandoned our brilliant scepticism en masse each time an advertisement appeared on the television that:
- Showed cute children doing something sweet for each other
- Showed cute animals
- Played nostalgic music
- Was shot in soft focus
- Had people crying/hugging/laughing/generally emoting together
- All of the above
Upon which cue, the knees of normally contained people would buckle as they quickly reached for the sofa, tears welling in eyes, followed by an: ‘aw, I really love that ad’. But what comes next – the subconscious acceptance of the brand behind the ad as a benign and friendly influence in our lives – is where a scepticism refresher might come in handy.
Intelligent people feel they can knowingly succumb to the sentimentality in such ads temporarily and come out the other side unsullied by the marketing because they believe they are aware of and impervious to the machinations of the advertising industry.
Sadly, advertising is cleverer than you.
And ads for financial services companies are the best and the worst. If you’ve seen Lloyds Bank’s tremendously effective but totally offensive ‘For the next step’ campaign, which goes in hard on divorce, death and losses of every kind to make our stomachs lurch with sadness and empathy for we-know-not-who, evoking memories of our own past grief and despair, you’ll know what I’m on about.
Ditto Nationwide’s totally saccharine and ill-judged poetry reading campaign (Nationwide, you are a lending and savings institution, not a bastion of the arts, please know your place).
Their genius is the manipulation of emotion – and deep emotions too, that induce feelings of familiarity, security, even dependency.
The brands these ads represent are then in our lives in a deeper way than our rational mind would allow because of the positive associations they subconsciously create with what we hold dear – namely, our families, our homes, our communities, the natural world. The bank becomes an invisible relative in the room as scenes are recreated that you somehow feel were a part of your own life.
And for what? A bank account. A mortgage. A chuffing pension.
Loyalty is the crack of financial services. Whatever fosters it among customers or potential customers of banks is worth its weight in Aston Martins to them.
They can’t generate loyalty via the actual features of their products, no matter how much we appreciate their in-credit interest rate or no-claims bonus, because these things are two-a-penny and superficial. Unlike John Lewis, they don’t have actual, tangible loveliness, like floor lamps or cashmere jumpers, to sell. Nor do they have significant product differentiation to show us how much better they are at this or that than the rest of the banks.
No. They have to do it laterally, through associations, through getting under our skin, through attempting to make us feel about the bank the way we feel about dear Aunt Mabel: always there for you, tells a good anecdote, makes a good scone and delivers presents at certain times of year.
Reality check: banks are nothing like dear Aunt Mabel. Their behaviour is more estranged-Uncle-Frank-who-we-don’t-mention-anymore.
If it weren’t for the dependence of our entire economy on their function, they’d have collapsed eight years ago under a heap of hubris, greed and contempt for the rest of humanity.
Sure, big finance might have learned a few lessons. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt there. But PPI still happened. And, as we speak, the Financial Conduct Authority, following an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority, is reviewing punitive unauthorised overdraft charges, which Which? says can be costlier than payday loans.
Most of the money that has been pumped into banks has continued to be circulated around the financial services industry, or plonked into property, without ever reaching any of the areas of the economy in which it is actually needed, like manufacturing, infrastructure and small business.
Without wishing to offend any friends that work hard at banks and believe they are doing great things for society (although I probably already have), banks are like giant parasites – our ecosystem is dependent on them, but they take more than they give, sucking up our monthly incomes faster than we can spend or save it in the form of mortgages, credit card or personal loan repayments, and fees for this or that. Yeah, sure, they might occasionally invest it in a nice energy project, but mostly they pay what we work hard to earn to their top performers so that a small minority of individuals based in and around the Square Mile can enjoy excessive lifestyles funded by us – the legion of little guys scraping livings together at the bottom of the wealth pyramid.
So next time you are at that point (sooner than you think as the schmaltz overload of Christmas approaches) when you feel your knees going, you reach for the sofa and you find yourself about to utter the words, ‘aw, I really love this ad’, just STOP! Pull yourself together, channel David Hume and ask yourself: ‘Is there any evidence, based on my own experience, on which to support the deep affection I appear to be experiencing right now for this bank?’ If you can honestly answer that your bank is as important to you as dear Aunt Mabel, then fine. But I hope that’s not true.
Rebecca O’Connor is the founder of Good With Money and a former financial writer at The Times