Ally Ponies Up the Goods

I can’t remember what I was watching when the hidden-camera footage from one of Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s new spots for Ally Bank, showing a boy and a truck, popped up. I do recall it jumped off the screen like a lightning bolt.

At first, I had no clue what it was for. But I wanted to stay with the commercial, puzzle it out and not let it go. Part of its stickiness comes from its hard-to-place look and feel. It’s TV advertising that seems old and new at the same time, as if it took its cues from some lost spot of the 1960s. It’s striking in its cleverness.
 
So, here’s something novel and, perhaps, contradictory: big, vintage-feeling commercials (backed by a major prime-time schedule) for a new online bank. (Three ads are airing on TV and posted at youtube.com/ally.)
 
There’s genius in the nostalgia. The hidden-camera setup, each of which stars kids (one boy starts to play with a toy that is cruelly yanked away), is a great way to metaphorically acknowledge the anger and frustration people feel towards “banks” — and deflect it long enough to make a case for a bank without being booed off the stage. (Banks and bankers are now held in such contempt that advertisers seem noble by comparison.) Also, using kids suggests a mythic time before zombie banks, when the world was innocent and honest.

Some of the retro feel also comes from the fact that the children interact with a man in formal business attire. That never happens on Blue’s Clues, where the host dresses (and sometimes acts) just like the 2-year-olds he’s entertaining. Plus, shows like Candid Camera and House Party, which had a “Kids Say the Darndest Things” segment, were big in the ’60s.


 
The design, casting and production of the hidden-camera part are incredibly deft. Some of the kids were scouted from schools and rec centers in New Jersey, and a few are professionals. All were ushered in merely to “play” in a sometime-art gallery in Chelsea, a space lined with futuristic-looking cubes and fronted with big, round washing machine-style Plexiglass-covered windows — all the better to hide the camera people. Lipstick cameras were also taped underneath the furniture. Director Hank Perlman of Hungry Man has an obvious feel for kids, and he was watching the monitors and communicating with the main actor through an earpiece from behind a wall. The result is a laboratory for human truth. That’s pretty profound stuff for TV ads.
 
The spot with the kid and the truck is like watching a case study of aggressive boy play. When given the red toy, the boy immediately bangs it around. When the guy suddenly takes it away, offering a cardboard cutout of a truck in its place, the kid isn’t buying it. He looks up, outraged, and speaks for all of us when he says, “It’s a piece of junk.” The moment comes across as raw and authentic. The man then explains that the red truck was a “limited-time offer only — it’s here in fine print.”

The end of each spot — in which Ally introduces itself as a truthful bank without fine print, minimums and sneaky behavior — feels rushed. Ally is actually the rebranded name for GMAC, speaking of bankruptcy and bailouts. It’s understandable that a bank would want to distance itself from the troubled automaker. But given all the attempted transparency, it should be mentioned. Otherwise, after buying into the line, “Even kids know that bank offers shouldn’t come with such ridiculous conditions,” we feel duped.