What's with the violent protest in HSBC's new ad?

Advertising deconstructed.
Oct. 27 2008 6:16 AM

HSBC's Bizarre Lumberjack Ad

What does a violent environmental protest have to do with banking?

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The ad loses me, however, when it tries to connect the story to the brand. One reason the spot is so captivating is that it holds you in suspense about what it's selling. At first, you're thinking Greenpeace memberships. Then the logger and protester make nice, and you're wondering if there's some new line of recycled-paper-stock Hallmark cards. When the HSBC logo pops up, it's a surprise, and not a pleasant one. If, like me, you've been taken in by the touching story of a world where Polly the Protester and Larry the Logger can find common ground, the reveal feels slightly icky. You've just been given goosebumps by an international banking conglomerate—sucker!

And what exactly do loggers and tree-huggers have to do with banking? Tracy Britton explained to me that HSBC caters to a sophisticated clientele, many of whom have interests overseas. The aim of this ad isn't, it turns out, to sell me a Choice Checking account—HSBC has other campaigns touting such products. "Lumberjack" is supposed to reinforce the bank's global experience to customers who own real estate in Belgium, say, or a small business with clients in Cambodia. The loggers and tree-huggers are metaphors, deployed to show that HSBC understands the diversity of viewpoints in the world—which in turn allows the bank to better serve customers in New York and Phnom Penh, alike.

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In the past, HSBC has made this pitch in a more straightforward fashion. In this TV spot, a narrator explains that in "some Asian cities, it's considered acceptable for a commuter to fall asleep on the shoulder of a stranger." He makes this statement over footage of an Asian man falling asleep on the shoulder of a stranger … in the New York City subway. Here the message is plain: "What works in some places doesn't work in others. Let us worry about this so you don't have to."

The fundamental problem with the new "Different Values" campaign is that values—whether or not to cut down a forest—are very different from customs—whether it's kosher to snuggle up to the guy next to you on the train. Other cultures' customs can seem strange to us provincial Americans, so smart businesspeople find partners who understand those customs. That makes sense. Values, though, are something else entirely. Do you want to work with a bank that simply recognizes that different people have different values? That some people see a lost wallet as an obligation and others as a temptation, as one of the print ads suggests? Shouldn't a bank have values of its own? Shouldn't it be the wallet-returning type?

Grade: C+. The irony is that HSBC does seem to have some unique values, values that have allowed it to steer clear of the straits so many of its competitors find themselves in at the moment. But you wouldn't know it from watching "Lumberjack." As for the unsettling mise-en-scène, it could be a smart strategy—the ad has sparked conversation. Perhaps Citibank's next ad should take place at an Iraq war protest (bring home the troops before my new six-month CD matures!). Bank of America could go historical and set a spot during the summer of '69 (free love—and free checking!). But I, for one, would prefer not to have my psyche rattled by bank advertising at the moment. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned.