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Financial Firms' Ads: 'Don't Blame Us'

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After two weeks of largely ignoring the Wall Street mess, financial services brands have begun running ads addressing the crisis.

While some ads are aimed at restoring consumer and investor confidence in financial firms, others go as far pointing out companies' failures. For example, one such ad from VectorVest, a Cornelius, N.C.-based brokerage, used the implosion of various financial firms to underscore its own acumen. "We gave Lehman, Merrill and AIG a sell over 3 months ago!" blared a VectorVest ad that ran in Investor's Business Daily this week.

John Hancock took a less cocksure approach. The company ran a TV spot this week in which a man is texting his wife about friends who lost their money and have to move in with their children. When the woman asks her husband for reassurance that they won't end up in the same situation, he doesn't respond. Then the text follows: "Help secure your future with products from John Hancock."

The Wall Street crisis has had a devastating effect on the financial industry, including the collapse of Lehman Bros. and Merrill Lynch, and the federal government's $85 billion bailout of American International Group. But besides some local banks, financial services firms were initially mum in addressing the situation.

Now, some are beginning to talk about the meltdown, albeit in sometimes veiled language. For instance, in addition to Hancock and VectorVest, TIAA-CREF, a provider of retirement services, published a print ad in Monday's Wall Street Journal with the headline: "Since when did survival become the bar?" The ad, via Modernista, Boston, went on to explain that an "unexpected event" can occur, but that TIAA-CREF favors a long-term investment approach.

"We're visible because it's important that the individuals and institutions we serve know that we are strong and stable," said Steve Goldstein, evp-public affairs and marketing. Goldstein said the company is also communicating with clients in other ways, such as via e-mail messages from the CEO, its Web site and in meetings.

Still another spot, from Interactive Brokers, Greenwich, Conn., this week introduced a new print ad citing "deteriorating credit markets, broker failures, rumors of hedge fund liquidations . . . "

Al Ries of Ries & Ries, Roswell, Ga., wondered whether firms that haven't been directly affected by the crisis should be saying anything and causing confusion: "It's a serious psychological error to introduce something that isn't there. When something comes out of the blue in a message, it implies the opposite."

Russel Wohlwerth, a principal at Ark Advisors, Los Angeles, which has in the past served a number of financial services companies, including Nasdaq and WaMu, agreed.

"You don't want to talk too quickly or you could embarrass yourself," Wohlwerth said. "But I would also err on the side of caution with something comforting, if I were to come out with a message."

He noted the tone of a Charles Schwab ad that broke this week, which builds on the company's ongoing campaign dubbed "Talk to Chuck." Only this print ad, which ran in The New York Times, has been tweaked based on current events with text that reads: "Thanks for your confidence in Schwab during this period."

Wohlwerth added, "It was a subtle position and made the investor feel like an everyman. People are looking to be reassured, and it fits that tone."