Wells Fargo Re-news its Vows, Once Again, Without Permission
The new Wells Fargo billboard caught my eye. Did you see it too this summer as you entered or left San Francisco on the 101?
Others noticed it. It was the largest advertising canvas in the City, atop a building that faces all the motorists heading into and out of the City on the skyway. The stock photo features a tight headshot of a young woman, tousled black-haired bob cut, backlit by the sun, shining out of view to the right.
Across the full width of the billboard, in four-foot tall letters the vow states: We’re re-committing to you. In the bottom left corner: Established 1852, Re-Established 2018.
I know what they’re trying to do – and not just because I have a degree in English.
Full-disclosure: after college I worked for Photonica, the edgy, artistic stock photography company responsible for providing 80% of book cover art in the mid-1990s, including Snow Falling on Cedars, an image that I pulled myself in the summer of ’94 for Harcourt Brace when the request came in for “forested mountain range and snow, showing some ocean a plus.” We didn’t have of a photo of snow falling on cedars, but we did have the redwoods in mist: close enough. Snow Falling on Cedars became a bestseller and the Barnes and Noble front window display on 5th Ave in midtown featured this book cover as a 10’ tall poster next to a giant pyramid of the novels featuring the same image.
Our office was two blocks south of the Flatiron building on 5th Ave, on the 8th floor. I was a photographic researcher for two years at their NYC office and a sales rep for one year when they opened a satellite office in San Francisco. In New York, I was often confused with the very talented, portrait photographer, Chris Buck. “Chris Buck does research for you?!” customers in the know, often asked our sales reps. It was clear NYC was not big enough for two Chris Bucks.
After a year in the San Francisco office I left the photo library for the trees. My wife has worked in advertising the last 20 years, with most of them while batting for McCann Erickson. Did you know that on 9/11, Microsoft was like 72 hours away from launching their global multi-million dollar ad campaign that featured people flying through the sky among city buildings? That campaign was yanked back before the day was done.
That Wells Fargo image and the advertisement was up there for the entire summer, which means others were seeing it, market researchers proclaiming it favorable, everyone receiving the same message? The ad remained up there, even beyond Labor Day.
What was the message? Well, the first time I drove by the image, I was moving at a good clip because of my ungodly 7 a.m. start time. My early morning, caffeine-free double-take was not to ogle the young lady, it was to re-read their pitch: We’re re-committing to you.
When you fly by the advertisement, the young lady and her perky, tousled back-lit hair don’t remind you of your first time; it reminds you of the young lover that followed, all sport without the emotion. When you see this image up on the billboard at 60 mph, the sun, is that actually rising in the East, after another all-night romp in the basement? Or is that light to the West a sunset, signaling the tip-off of another sex cycle, this time maybe on the neighbor’s lawn?
That’s what the image says to me – she is outdoors in this image, is she not? And the subject’s Mona Lisa smile wants to let you know that if during the commercial breaks throughout that endless, sex-filled summer we both happened to stray, or in the bombed-out state of passion and wine coolers we were also feeling-up other friends as well, there really was no need to hold it against each other. We were training partners, putting these and those parts together as designed, intended and plenty unintended. It was a summer filled with kaleidoscopic hickeys, a lot of cardio and the first Big O. But now the school year has started and it’s time to re-connect, and start getting serious about hooking up again – the new school year started like three weeks ago, already.
But in traffic, when crawling by on all fours in the opposite direction, you realize that the subject in the stock photo is closer to middle-aged. And the Mona Lisa smile is unsettled and pained. This tableau reveals a much different narrative: your former lover is tired, and the bleary eyes are not from too much sex, but from working 60 hours a week at two jobs, super-commuting via a minimum of two different modes of public transportation, no sex, and staying up all night resisting Trump, consuming cannabis and remaining incredulous that you too had to add another #metoo hashtag to the courageous chorus. That’s also what this advertisement is telling me.
The intended message was designed to be read and viewed at 60 mph. The ad agency for Wells Fargo must be in the Midwest, where there is no traffic.
The call that was placed for the stock photo, the winning pitch: let’s find an image that reminds consumers that though our client created potentially 3.5 million fake bank and credit card accounts and 528,000 unauthorized online bill pay enrollments, and just reached a 142 million dollar national class action settlement, and blames unrealistic sales goals placed on employees, and is vowing to make things right (you can come first, this time, pinky promise), that despite these summery, youthful indiscretions, the stock photo selected will remind consumers of their 2nd string pleasure pal who was always game, and if things got a little crazy there for a moment, well, some sexual boundaries and teenage trust issues were bound to crop up. In the end, it was always about the two of us hiding away together. Let’s reset our statuses on facebook -- they really should create “re-committing” as a listed relationship status on there. And the image should be timeless, and show the first horse-drawn bank coach in front of Wells Fargo headquarters in San Francisco in 1852. If you can provide us with an image that captures this, my legal will get in touch with your legal, and work on the terms.
I didn’t think this advertisement was going to last through its first week when it appeared in early summer, the reek of sex too strong for even the most progressive among us.
I’m not so sure the Wells Fargo ad is like that 2nd lover, all sport and no emotion, and I don’t think anyone has asked the corporate citizens there to re-commit to us in this rather forward way, but this image -- the updated profile picture of our former lover as the tired, priced-out Bay Area hipster touches another nerve, not the youthful funny bone, but the sciatica, the one that starts in our old backside and twinges down the leg in pain.
Yet, this billboard ad persisted, even beyond Labor Day.