In Financial Ads, the Dream Comes Down to Earth

Shifting from vineyards and sailboats to pragmatic guidance

In 2006, at the peak of the real estate boom, Ameriprise Financial unveiled an ad campaign targeted at baby boomers featuring the late Hollywood bad boy Dennis Hopper. “Your generation is definitely not headed for bingo night,” Hopper cackled in one of the spots. “You are going to turn retirement upside down.” It concluded with a fictitious beneficiary of the company’s advice sailing off on a turquoise sea in a huge catamaran.

What a difference a recession makes. Images of retirement promoted by financial companies have changed dramatically since then. Gone are the spots with youthful-looking 60-somethings enjoying their lakefront second homes or sipping chardonnay at their vineyards. Too many real investors have lost their savings in the market and will be working for many years to come. “You aren’t seeing a lot of images of dreams and aspiration and idealistic notions of retirement and self-actualization,” says Mick McCabe, chief strategy officer for Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners, a New York ad agency whose clients include Vanguard Investments. “What you see instead is more pragmatic and measured.”

Kim Sharan, Ameriprise’s chief marketing officer, says the Hopper commercials fit the exuberant pre-recession climate. “People thought they could do anything,” she says. “They were going to reinvent retirement.” Once the bad times set in, Ameriprise jettisoned Saatchi & Saatchi, the agency for the old ads, and hired R/GA, a New York firm known for its digital work. The new firm came up with a more sober campaign in which actor Tommy Lee Jones stressed that Ameriprise has never taken a bailout. R/GA also produced Web ads. One featured a financial adviser who says retirement can be a more emotional time than people realize. In other words, they might want to keep working.

Prudential found itself in a similar predicament. In pre-crisis days, one of its TV ads showed a guy bicycling leisurely on a misty boardwalk. “This could be your morning commute,” the narrator promised. After the Dow tumbled, Prudential hired Droga5 to craft its “Bring Your Challenges” campaign. “All the financial brands are reintroducing themselves in a new light,” says Colin McConnell, head of Prudential Advertising, the company’s in-house agency. “We definitely want to sound a credible note.”

Before the crisis, Fidelity Investments’ ads focused on how easy it was to save for retirement. Now they encourage people to seek help navigating financial challenges with ads featuring a green line that traces the path to retirement. The shift comes as investors have pulled $341 billion from U.S. equity mutual funds since 2008. Financial companies had to change their tone, says Barbara Lippert, curator of popular culture for the ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and a former critic for AdWeek: “People are worried about being underwater on their mortgages, not about getting out on a sailboat.”


    The bottom line: Marketers for mutual funds and financial planning firms are ditching the dreamy beach scenes as investors confront the need to work longer.

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