Where’s the Logic in Smart HSBC Ads?

“We are in the midst of a once-in-a-century credit tsunami,” Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, told a congressional panel last week. (Now you tell us, Al!) During his appearance, he also acknowledged that he had been “partially” wrong in advising against more regulation of derivatives.

At least Greeny admitted to a “partial” wrongness — that’s more than the guys from Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, etcetera have copped to.

With Wall Street getting a $700 billion bailout, it’s no wonder Americans, watching their home values and retirement accounts dwindle while companies announce layoffs, are outraged, angry and scared. Given the increasingly bleak financial reality, it’s a slight understatement to say that, these days, no one is cheering bankers or banks.

But if we all want to put on the hair shirt, how’s this for a thesis: A looming financial disaster should have been clear to all of us as soon as bank advertising got funny — it was as if banks were selling beer or fast food, not financial services. Just think of the WaMu ads of a year back or so in which a young black guy rounded up all the old, white, paunchy bankers in a pen to show how innovative the bank is. (So innovative it had to be taken over, woo-hoo!)

So you have to give HSBC props for its thoughtful, intelligent campaign (created by JWT). It’s philosophical, even. Unfortunately, there’s an essential disconnect that proves jarring.

At the very least, the sheer heft of the media buy in New York conveys that this bank has money: I’ve seen the TV commercial everywhere, even in the back of a New York City cab. A version of the print ads are online, and last week the HSBC brand became the sole advertiser for an entire issue of New York magazine. (The latter happened to feature a black-and-white cover photo of the head of a bearded man, eyes closed, mouth open in a scream, under the cover line, “The Manic Depressive Economy.”)

The ads, beautifully designed, look great: modern, sharp, intelligent. The red-bordered, all-text opening spread announces, “The more we look at the world, the more we recognize that when people talk about money, they are really talking about things they value. Family, love, happiness, time, security, health, freedom — things you won’t find on a bank statement.”

Huh? So we should equate money with health and love, things a bank can’t possibly help us with? I don’t get the logic.

But the second paragraph reads, “By touching on these topics we hope to make you pause, even for a brief moment, and think about what you truly value.” That’s fair enough.

Three of the exact same images are stacked both vertically and horizontally, with a different word on each. (For example, a shot of a baby, repeated three times, has either the word “love,” “legacy” or “expense” on its belly. And an image of a bottle of water bears either the word “healthy,” “fashionable” or “wasteful.”

I think the print work does allow all kinds of readers to find an image that engages them — even if the message is abstruse about exactly how the customer benefits.

It also works better than the TV ad. As a little piece of film with an interesting story line, the TV commercial is gorgeous (and directed by Vince Squibb of Gorgeous Productions), but it also has a major disconnect. It opens on a scene in what would seem to be the Pacific Northwest, where uniformed police are running after protesters who’ve shown up in a wooded area to stop the logging trade. There’s one shot of an older guy getting arrested, and his shaved skull — he’s practically skin and bones — makes it look like he’s been in a prison camp. Our protagonist, an energetic young woman with a ponytail, is being led away by the police as she passes “Henry,” a lumberjack who’s going to cut down some trees.