Bank of America/Merrill Lynch took out a double-page spread in the Wall Street Journal last week to deliver what it must have felt was a very important message to its current and would-be customers:


Nothing.

The spread was mostly black ink. A conductor's hands appear in the lower-right corner, a header reads "Expertise and resources, seamlessly orchestrated," and two lines of mouseprint explain that "understanding the score" is important to providing lots of financial services.

And we wonder why:

  • Nobody trusts financial firms anymore, and
  • Newspaper ads are a dying breed?

It never would have occurred to me that Bank of America would consider this nonsense relevant to the public, or even in some purely mercenary way useful to the sole purposes of its brand. This is a company that bought a brokerage firm teetering on failure, and got a multi-billion dollar transfusion from the U.S. government to stay in business. It must have many thousands of concerned, worried, or outright scared customers...and even the smart ones probably have to harrumph their way to faux confidence in the metaphysical perfection of the system. 

And yet the most important thing it presents to the world is a metaphor about orchestras?

The ad says nothing. Worse, it ensures that your fingers get covered in black ink as you quickly turn the page (the copy runs along the bottom, so no breezy flip through the paper even reveals it, which might be a good thing). In case anybody needed reassurance that everything is business as usual, the ad's concept and content confirm that nothing has changed. It also hurts the Journal by indirectly reminding readers that newspaper ads aren’t necessarily relevant or useful, but simply something to be skipped (with smudged fingertips as a thank you).

Imagine if the bank had instead elected to run an ad that:

  • Stated what's different now, a la "A Brand New Day" at Chrysler, only honest
  • Substantiated it with references to involved third-parties (regulators, watchdogs) and offers of new programs for investors
  • Provided a meaningful mechanism for participation...something specific and compelling vs. a "visit this URL for more."

Imagine further if the newspaper established some standards for ads (even display ads) so that clients couldn't help destroy the long-term viability of the medium by running meaningless ads that paid-off to publishers in the short-term?

I think we're witnessing a machine on autopilot. A train careening down a track with nobody at the wheel, or whatever steers a locomotive. From the conversations internally at the bank, to the sales pitch from the newspaper, there must have been an almost willful disregard for reality.

Maybe the orchestra metaphor is ultimately right on target.  We've heard this song before.

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dystopos/18396625/

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/10/nothing-to-say.html

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