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?

The Spot: Protesters guard a stand of trees, preventing a team of loggers from advancing. The police arrive and forcibly wrest the protesters from the forest. One young woman, her hands zip-tied behind her back, glares at a bald logger as she's led to a police cruiser. "Are you happy now?" she asks. Cut to a small jail. The woman is released from a cell, having been bailed out by the bald logger. She leaves the jail in a huff and gets on a motorcycle. The bald logger follows her out—and gets on the same motorcycle. As they drive along a woodland road, the woman, who has been holding on to a rear handlebar, puts her arms around the waist of the logger, who smiles almost imperceptibly. A narrator says: "The more you look at the world, the more you recognize that people value things differently. HSBC, the world's local bank."      

(Click here to watch the 90-second version making the rounds on YouTube; when the ad airs on television, it's in a 30-second cut.)

This spot feels more like a movie than a television ad. It's shot in a convincing cinema verité style. It's got a narrative arc, complete with a surprising plot twist and a provocative ending. It tackles, unflinchingly, a defining political issue of our time. And, yes, that is Joanna Newsom on the soundtrack. If Portland, Ore., had an annual Very Short Film Festival, "Lumberjack" would be a shoo-in for the People's Choice award.

Forgive me for asking so crass a question about such a poignant tale—but does any of this make you want to open a money-market account at HSBC? Headquartered in London, HSBC is the largest European bank and is a major player in Asia, where it got its start. (HSBC is short for Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.) While no bank will emerge from the global financial crisis unscathed, HSBC has weathered the storm far better than most. (Among other things, the bank is in the habit of keeping more deposits than loans on its books—fancy that.) Which raises another question: At a moment when many Americans are suffering financial shell shock, does it make sense to build your brand around an unsettling clash between policemen and protesters? Wouldn't it be better to talk about your bank's 140-year history, its 100 million customers worldwide, its $1 trillion (and change) in deposits?

HSBC Ad.

Given the circumstances, HSBC could be forgiven for giving the competition a good smack upside the head. How do you like me now, Royal Bank of Scotland? Peep the balance sheet, UBS! But Tracy Britton, head of the bank's U.S. marketing division, told me the best way for HSBC to exploit its foresight is to stay the course. "Lumberjack" was conceived before the financial crisis struck, but HSBC plans to stick with the spot, and the larger branding effort of which it's a part. Last week, the bank bought out New York, filling the magazine with a dozen ads in its "Different Values" print campaign. Like "Lumberjack," the print ads stress the bank's different-strokes-for-different-folks message.

Does "Lumberjack" deliver that message? There's no denying it grabs the viewer's attention, thanks in no small part to Newsom, the indie-rock harpist whose voice reminds me of the mournful summer breeding call of the common loon. The $5 footlong jingle this is not. The visuals are similarly arresting: The forest location is lush, and the loggers and tree-huggers both look their parts. I particularly admire the tension-building shot, in the 90-second version, of a stoic protester taking off his spectacles as the police advance. Also the shot of the protester who is wearing a very realistic bear costume.

The melee that ensues is disturbing—the menacing K-9-unit German shepherd puts one in mind of Birmingham—but carefully choreographed to show both sides behaving aggressively. As for the denouement, in which we learn that the female protester and the bald logger are in a relationship, it's either irritating or touching, depending on your taste in such things. For me, it works: It's like a 21st-century version of one of those Ernst Lubitsch meet-cute pictures, in which the man who sleeps in pajama bottoms and the woman who sleeps in pajama tops fall in love at the pajama rack.

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.

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.

John Swansburg is Slate's editorial director. Follow him on Twitter.