Bust That Bank

Sept. 26 1997 3:30 AM

Bust That Bank

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Sound02 - VR-Bigbanks.avi or Sound03 - VR-Bigbanks.mov; download time, 4 minutes at 56K Sound01 - VR-Bigbanks.asf; for sound only

Take A Stand, produced by Trippi, McMahon and Squier for the Credit Union Campaign for Consumer Choice.

Increasingly, political consultants are moving from pushing candidates to pushing issues, a change that is unlikely to meet with universal approbation. Take A Stand is the creation of political consultant Steve McMahon on behalf of credit unions. At issue is legislation that would undermine the unions' federally endorsed/guaranteed/protected competitive advantage over conventional banks.

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The spot uses a tactic common among candidates who don't want to take the in-your-face-negative route. Its strategy is "comparative": Affirmation moves seamlessly into attack; the positive sets up the negative.

The message is explicit from the get-go: "Big banks" are bad banks, the high-cost alternative you don't need to settle for. The option, already availed of by "70 million Americans" just like you, is ... the credit union. The initial visuals are fuzzy and sweet, and ring newish variations on familiar themes of family and friends, companionship and security. Though the family gathered around the table in this Ozzie and Harriet update is stolidly suburban, it comprises Asians; though the spot proffers a squishily trite bedtime-story shot, it does so with an explicit nod to the minority family, an implicit nod to the minority parent.

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With their "low rate loans," credit unions let the American family bite off their bit of the dream, be it new wheels, new digs, or a college degree. The spot serves up a sanitized, sitcom version of the grand melting pot; the images of diversity are carefully calibrated, almost disingenuously casual. We've seen the Asian family clustered around cake, and we've seen the black mother reading to her child. We also get the picnicking towheads, the strolling seniors, the black graduate.

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Now the nub: the entirely credible complaint that big banks levy higher ATM fees. Focus groups have identified this as a pet consumer peeve, and Take A Stand urges viewers to do just that. The visual limns an urban skyline, superimposing a sinister message--"Now the big banks want to take away your right to join a credit union"--over an unsourced headline: "Tell banks to back off." Chyron and narrative alike tap the eons-old, morally loaded distinction between concrete jungle (home to "the malefactors of great wealth," as Theodore Roosevelt dubbed monster corporations) and Walden wood (or its '90s version, the manicured burbs). And you're given an 800 number, which is left on-screen through the succeeding scenes. The sponsors of the spot really want you to make that call--after which you'll be patched through to the office of your senator or representative, your name added to a petition, and so on. After all, there are several issue-advocacy techniques designed to show members of Congress your "grassroots support."

The end is even sweeter, and pairs clasped hands: the grown-up hand and the kiddie hand; the black hand and the white hand, and so on. So what if the narrative is a tad cluttered by all the calls to action? It's to Steve McMahon's credit that Take A Stand's populism is entirely palatable. The proof of its success, however, may well lie in the length of that petition.

--Robert Shrum

Robert Shrum is a leading Democratic political consultant. His deconstruction of ads is a weekly feature of Slate.

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