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.

But the spots are mesmerizing. They open with kids who are happy, eager and unself-conscious. Once this man takes the treats away, you can feel the air go out of the room and see the kids tensing up and doubting themselves.

The spot with the girls and the pony is a showstopper. They sit at a little table and the man asks the girl with dark hair, “Would you like a pony?” She says yes. He produces an adorable little toy pony from his pocket and she’s happy. Then he asks the other girl if she’d like a pony and, with that, brings out a real one, saddled like the toy. The second girl jumps up to pet the pony and the first one, crushed, says, “You didn’t say you could have a real one.” The man responds, “You didn’t ask,” as the camera stays tightly on her face. The emotion in her eyes and the way she tries to bite her lip is more real than anything she could have said. Her disappointment, frustration and tamped-down fury is one of the purest, most powerful nonverbal moments ever captured on TV.

But that’s also a problem: It overpowers the ending of the spot. It would do the same for any spot. The story, then, is only half-finished. With this kind of powerhouse footage illustrating unadulterated honesty, Ally has lots to live up to. I think about that little girl’s scowl, and I don’t want to be fooled again.