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Halifax Howard's way is not how to sell us an Isa

PUBLISHED: 16:24 16 January 2012 | UPDATED: 09:11 15 February 2012

Personally, I blame Howard from the Halifax. Boring financial institutions used to commission boringly obvious television advertisements that illustrated how boring, but nominally reliable, they boringly were.

Then, probably after an insufferable ‘blue-sky-thinking’ session in Hoxton, advertising executives decided that it was time to personalise financial advertisements, preferably by using real, live members of staff to illustrate how banks, insurance firms and the like were run by people Just Like Us.

But there was a problem. Real people doing real things without any manipulation is the televisual equivalent of watching paint dry. In black and white.

So instead, it was decided that the ‘real staff ’ should represent their company as befits the image of a respectable, trustworthy, serious institution – in other words, they should show their staff fart-arsing about as if they were over-excitable children’s entertainers after an afternoon mainlining Tizer.

The public would, figured the advertising agencies, be persuaded that they had a connection to the Halifax staff and, like Pavlovian dogs, want to be part of the gang by parting with their cash for whatever they were flogging.

Thankfully, jolly bespectacled buffoon Howard Brown was dropped in 2008 after an internal review recommended that the bank’s future marketing campaigns should adopt a more serious tone in these difficult and austere times.

Proof that the credit crunch hasn’t all been bad, perhaps: no one wants to see Howard astride a giant swan re-working a classic song with smart-arse financial lyrics when they’re rooting through bins for dinner or re-using their teabag for the 900th time.

Frankly, no one wants to see Howard at all, regardless of their financial situation.

Astonishingly, the replacement for Howard, the ‘more serious tone’ that Halifax had been searching for, came in the shape of the Isa, Isa Baby ad.

It made you desperately wish that a murderous Lloyds black horse could stampede on to the set ridden by Santander’s Lewis Hamilton while a voiceover from HSBC’s Michael Gambon described the ensuing carnage.

Frankly, I feel the same way about Aviva’s Gary, and it is only because I know that the new advertisements are a dramatisation of a real-life customer that I’m not imagining him pinned under the relentless, pounding hooves of said black horse.

He’s already been through enough, what with the motorcycle accident, losing his job and having to undergo counselling in order to come to terms with ruining the dramatic suspense during Downton Abbey.

I may not like handbags or shoes or talking about weddings or fashion, but I do like a bit of downstairs (and upstairs) action.

It’s Sunday night, the weekend is nearly over, what I need to be reminded of is that rich people are miserable too, albeit miserable in a mansion jam-packed with servants rather than a terrace house jampacked with ingrates and dust.

I was already struggling a little bit with the pace of the new series – in series one, it took 12 episodes for Mr Bates to serve a full-course of dinner – but in this series we’re speeding through the First World War faster than Gary round a hairpin bend.

I fully expect to tune in next week to find the Earl and Countess of Grantham confined to the gatehouse while the National Trust entertain Gary and his longsuffering wife with scones in the tearoom.

Just as you’ve got to grips with life in the trenches, the scene cuts to a crestfallen Gary who has bitten the dust on his motorbike, is mummified in bandages and faces the twin-pronged fork of misery: injury and unemployment.

Hooray for escapism! Ironically, in some kind of cosmic U-turn, as Downton Abbey speeds up, Gary’s story drags like a scarf caught in a car door.

We’re on, what, week four and Gary’s insurance money still hasn’t come through.

ITV was barraged with complaints about the nature of the Aviva advertisements and their frequency – at times, it has been difficult to decide whether the drama you’re watching is about masters and servants or income protection.

“We are aware that the approach we’ve taken is a bit different to the norm,” said the head of brand at Aviva.

“The stories were chosen specifically to show how the lives of everyday people can suddenly take a dramatic turn, but that financial support can help in their hour of need.

“As Gary’s story builds in the coming weeks, viewers will see the positive outcome of his experience.”

What a spoiler.

By my reckoning, Gary will have divorced his wife and entered into a civil partnership with Matthew Crawley by mid-November, therefore standing to inherit Downton Abbey leaving the Granthams wishing they’d taken out income protection.

Either that, or he’ll finally get his insurance pay-out – I can barely wait to find out.

•This article was original published on October 10, 2011

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