Animation? In ads for Charles Schwab?

Advertising deconstructed.
Dec. 5 2005 7:05 AM

Money Toons

The distinctive animated ads from Charles Schwab.

Talk to Chuck/Broker's Kids The Spot: It's another financial services ad. A balding, middle-aged guy looks into the camera and whines about brokerage commissions. Except there's something different: This guy is animated. And I don't mean he's really angry. I mean he's drawn with some sort of computer animation technique. But, now that you mention it, he actually is really angry. There's a dark, bitter edge to his monologue: "So I was talking with my broker the other day—just the usual small talk, you know, how's the kids, how's the family, all that. And then it dawned on me: When you think about all the years I've been paying those big commissions on everything we bought and sold, were we really discussing my kids' future? Or his kids' future?" As the question hangs in the air, we cut to some innocuous piano jazz. A boldly printed slogan pops onscreen. "Talk to Chuck," it urges us.

Brokerage ads do nothing for me. That's partly because so many of them are aimed at retiring baby boomers. (There's the Fidelity one with Paul McCartney, and the awful, pandering Ameriprise one with the hippies and the '60s soundtrack.) But it's also because they tend to blend together. They all look the same.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Except for these ads from the resurgent Charles Schwab Corp., with their eye-catching animation and resentful rants. These spots aim to stand apart from the muddled crowd. "We actually made a 'clutter reel,' " says Ben Stuart, VP of Brand Strategy and Advertising for Schwab, "to show how the category was filled with all these stock clichés of wealth. Adirondack chairs. Sailing. Burled walnut paneling. Not only are these images tired, they also lack both credibility and relevance with most consumers."

Talk to Chuck/Dog Meter The first thing we notice with these Schwab ads is the medium: animation. This distinctive look is the work of Bob Sabiston, an MIT Media Lab veteran who brought the same "interpolated rotoscoping" technique to the Richard Linklater film Waking Life. (You may remember the more rudimentary rotoscoping used in the video for A-Ha's "Take On Me." Sabiston's software lets animators trace over live-action footage far more easily and quickly. Here's some info about how the method works.)

Animation seems an incongruous choice for Schwab (as I can't imagine the investor class is brimming with manga-philes), but Stuart says the cartoons force us to focus on what we're hearing. I think he's right. Somehow, washing out the real-world details present in a live actor's face, and in an actual background set, lets us move past what we're seeing and shifts our attention onto the dialogue. This was true with Waking Life, and it's even truer in these 30-second rotoscope bursts. (I remember thinking it was amazing that Waking Life could sustain my interest in all those ornate, existential conversations its characters were having. Turns out that rotoscoping can hold my interest in conversations about mutual fund portfolios, too.)

This isn't the first time a visual effect has been used as a branding tool. Consider the recent series of HP Digital Photography ads, in which simple cardboard photo frames gain the power to freeze time and then to unfreeze it. This frame effect is undeniably arresting and cool, and it also captures the fluid ease of taking, printing, e-mailing, and manipulating digital pictures. It's become synonymous with HP.

This rotoscoping is less apt to be indelibly linked with Schwab—since it already appeared in Waking Life and will be used again in a forthcoming Linklater movie—but no matter: I don't think it's wise to make a special effect the long-term signature of your brand. Visual effects become dated too quickly. Imagine some brand still using circa-1991 Michael Jackson "Black or White"-style "morphing" as the central plank of an ad campaign. It would look ridiculous.

Anyway, when the novelty of the animation wears off it's the tone of these Schwab spots that we're left with. These ads are about dissatisfaction. The characters are all men who are sick of their own impotent anger. They hate their brokers' steep commissions and bland, unhelpful advice. They want straight talk and lower fees. "It would be nice if the quarterly report had some kind of analysis," says the annoyed fellow in a spot titled "Dog," which addresses investors' uncertainty over when to unload an underperforming stock.

These fed-up, frustrated guys are exactly the type of investor Schwab wants to target with this campaign. They're the customers most likely to be lured away from Schwab's competitors. While most folks stick with a broker for decade after decade (because switching is a pain in the neck and seldom seems worth the effort), these spiteful dudes are prone to switch brokers out of restlessness, or rage. Schwab refers to them as "money in motion." They're ripe for the picking. Schwab hopes they'll talk to Chuck.

Grade: B+. And by the way, I love this new "Talk to Chuck" slogan. It's refreshing to see a little informality from a financial services firm. But more important: so percussive! "Charles Schwab" comprises two of the mushiest syllables you'll ever hear, with those soft, retreating l's and b's and ch's. It was time to add some sticky consonants, and a pair of k's does the trick. Nike, Coke, Starbucks, Kinko's … never underestimate the palate-exploding power of k-centric marketing.