Slate's Ad Report Card: Schwab's Animated Spots

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Slate columnist Seth Stevenson profiles a new ad campaign from the venerable Charles Schwab financial services firm. The new campaign features a hybrid live action/animation look focusing on the stories of middle-class investors.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now our regular look at the business of advertising. Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine Slate, is in a state he never imagined. He's actually excited about some new spots for a financial services company.

SETH STEVENSON reporting:

Brokerage ads do nothing for me. That's partly because so many of them are aimed at retiring baby boomers, but it's also because they tend to blend together. They all look the same, except for a new series of ads from resurgent Charles Schwab Corporation. Here's an example. A balding middle-aged guy looks into the camera and whines about brokerage commissions, except there's something different. This guy is animated. And I don't mean he's really angry. I mean he's drawn with some sort of computer animation technique. But now that you mention it, he actually is really angry. There's a dark, bitter edge to his monologue.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man #1: So I was talking with my broker the other day, just the usual small talk, you know, how's the kids, how's the family, all that. And then it dawned on me. You think about all the years I've been paying those big commissions on everything we've bought and sold; were we really discussing my kids' future or his kids' future?

STEVENSON: As the question hangs in the air, a boldly printed slogan pops on screen. `Talk to Chuck,' it urges us. These spots aim to stand apart from the muddled crowd. The brand strategy guy at Schwab told me they went through the ads of rivals and found what he calls `the stock cliches of wealth'--Adirondack chairs, yachts, burled walnut paneling. Not only are these images tired, he said, but they also lack relevance and credibility with most consumers. The animation in these ads is distinctive. It's the work of Bob Sabiston, an MIT media lab veteran who's brought the same interpolated rotoscoping technique to the Richard Linklater film "Waking Life." It's basically a kind of computer-assisted tracing over live-action footage. So it looks both hyper-real and cartoonish at the same time. Animation seems an incongruous choice for Schwab, but the company says the cartoons force us to focus on what we're hearing. I think they're right. Somehow washing out the real-world details present in a live actor's face and in an actual background set lets us move past what we're seeing and shifts our attention onto the dialogue.

Of course, when the novelty of the animation wears off, it's the tone of these Schwab spots we're left with. These ads are about dissatisfaction. The characters are all men who are sick of their own impotent anger. They hate their broker's steep commissions and bland, unhelpful advice. They want straight talk and lower fees.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man #2: I don't know. To me a dog's a dog. You got this one stock. You stare at it every month thinking it's gonna come back, but it just sits there. Be nice if your quarterly report had some kind of analysis or something to help you decide when to move on or not, like a dog meter, you know?

STEVENSON: These fed-up, frustrated guys are exactly the type of investor who's most likely to be lured away from Schwab's competitors. Schwab refers to them as `money in motion.' They're ripe for the picking. Schwab hopes they'll talk to Chuck.

I give these ads a B+. And by the way, I love this new `Talk to Chuck' slogan. It's refreshing to see a little informality from a financial services firm, but more important, it's so percussive. Charles Schwab comprises two of the mushiest syllables you'll every hear with those soft retreating L's and B's and Schs. It was time to add some sticky consonants and a pair of K's does the trick: Nike, Coke, Starbucks, Kinko's. Never underestimate the palate-exploding power of K-centric marketing.

BRAND: Opinion from Seth Stevenson, who reviews ads for the online magazine Slate. And you can see video of the ads in Seth's article at slate.com.

DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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