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Ad Slogans in the Age of Scandal

Brokerage advertisements used to be all about the firm: When E.F. Hutton speaks But these days call it the age of scandal brokerage ads are all about the client. A few years ago, companies touted how fast they were, how good they were, how much better their analysts were, what a great company they were, so on, says Scott Spry, executive vice president of Phoenix Marketing International, an advertising

Brokerage advertisements used to be all about the firm: “When E.F. Hutton speaks …” But these days — call it the age of scandal — brokerage ads are all about the client.

“A few years ago, companies touted how fast they were, how good they were, how much better their analysts were, what a great company they were, so on,” says Scott Spry, executive vice president of Phoenix Marketing International, an advertising and brand analytics group. “Today consumers don't want to hear that. They want to have a message that resonates with them. Our term is ‘it speaks to me.’ They want to see real situations that they can be helped with. It personalizes the message.”

Today, instead of bragging about themselves, securities firms — in their 30-second TV ads — talk about retirement, financial planning and how they can take care of the client to help protect his assets. “They're softer, less boastful,” Spry says. “You have to be entertaining, but you also have to get that real message across.” Spry's firm ranks advertisements by their effectiveness and says that traditionally, Morgan Stanley has the “most effective” ads, in terms of capturing the viewer's attention and getting the message across.

Registered Rep. examined the new television advertisements for some of the major firms to understand how they are marketing themselves to Main Street. We were also curious: Whose ad worked best?

Grade: A-

Firm: A.G. Edwards

Advertisement Title: “Runaway”

Length: 60 seconds

Production Company: Carmichael Lynch

Motto: “Fully Invested in Our Clients”

Description: A man — wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase, dry cleaning and an unusually large egg — walks toward his SUV in a parking garage. As he goes to open the hatchback, he sets down the egg and it rolls off. He stands at his SUV for a moment, stunned, before chasing after it. Thus begins an epic journey.

The egg seems to possess a mind of its own, and that mind is set on exploration. It rolls through the parking garage, into an elevator and out onto the street, where pedestrians, surprisingly unimpressed by an enormous egg rolling down the street, watch it indifferently. The egg hops on an escalator, lands in a dumpster, rolls out of that and then veers into — surprise — traffic, where it causes an accident. Still chasing the egg, our protagonist jumps over the hood of the cab, sprints through the street and almost knocks over a lady in a stroller. He finally corners the egg in an alley, where it rolls to a stop as a narrator intones, “Don't let your nest egg get away from you. Get objective financial advice instead. A.G. Edwards. For 118 years, fully invested in our clients.” The man, oblivious to the narrator's counsel, sighs and watches the egg roll away again.

Message: Trust us to protect your nest egg, A.G. Edwards says, and we can take care of it so you don't drop it.

Effectiveness: Unlike many brokerage ads, this one is actually funny, since, well, it has a large egg rolling around an otherwise unremarkable corporate atmosphere. It also gets across exactly what A.G. Edwards wants it to: Your nest egg is fragile and immensely valuable. You can trust us to make sure it's safe.

What the Reps Say: A.G. Edwards' reps have been complaining for years that not enough people nationwide knew the brand. So they're just happy the quiet St. Louis folks are advertising at all. “I've seen a couple of the ads, and they made me laugh,” says one rep. “It's a good way to help people understand what we're about.” When pressed, however, the rep admitted that he has never actually seen an egg that large, and wouldn't know what to do with it if he had.

Grade: B

Firm: Smith Barney

Advertisement Title: “Teachers”

Length: 30 seconds

Production Company: Merkley + Partners

Motto: “This Is Who We Are. This Is How We Earn It.”

Description: To a snappy, Barry White-esque soundtrack, the camera pans — past a beautiful beach house with a deck littered with tropical beverages — onto David and Kathy, a couple who appears to be in their early 60s. They are holding hands on the beach, spinning around in circles and looking euphoric. (At first you'll swear you are watching an erectile dysfunction commercial.) As they dance on the beach and laugh, a narrator says, “David and Kathy just built a beautiful new home, right at the water's edge.”

And then something strange happens. The music abruptly fuzzes out, like a needle being pulled off a record player, and the camera zooms madly toward Kathy's face. She stops smiling — becoming deadly serious, almost angry-looking — and glares directly at the camera. She speaks. “I'll tell you the real story. I've been a professor at a local university since I was 28,” she says, taking off her glasses dramatically. “And my husband's been at it longer than I have. You don't build a big nest egg on a couple of teachers' salaries. You need a plan. And a financial consultant who isn't afraid to roll up his sleeves.” The screen goes to black, with the words “You Work Hard to Earn It. Shouldn't Your Financial Consultant?” Cut to the Smith Barney logo, and the motto, “This Is Who We Are. This Is How We Earn It.”

Message: You think it's easy retiring into a life of luxury? Don't you believe it. It takes years of hard work, dedication, patience and persistence, not just on the part of the client, but also on the part of the advisor. You don't get rich enough to retire to a beach house with your sun-bathed spouse by accident.

Effectiveness: The ad is a little scary. The juxtaposition of the beach setting followed by the harsh reality of a woman bellowing right in the camera is jarring. It's like watching a harmless informercial late at night when you're about to fall asleep, then suddenly the channel changes the broadcast to war footage. That said, the point the firm wants to get across is clear: You can't live in a fantasyland. You have to work to make your dreams happen.

What the Reps Say: One rep is less concerned about production value and more about the selling of the firm. “We're basically showing people looking like they've struggled to reach retirement,” he says. “That might be true, but do we want to emphasize that?”

Grade: C-

Firm: Wachovia

Advertisement Title: “Am I Going To Be OK?”

Length: 30 seconds

Production Company: Mullen

Motto: “Start With Your Life and Plan Your Money Around It.”

Description: A shot of the Wachovia Securities logo blends into a snapshot — it looks like an actual Polaroid snapshot, the kind you shake to make it develop faster. It shows an old man fishing with what seems to be his grandson. Narration: “How can working with the right financial advisor answer the question, ‘Am I going to be OK?’” The question itself is asked by the voice of someone who is presumably a client. More questions follow: “If inflation goes up?” (The Polaroid bleeds into another picture, this time of a sailboat. The word “inflation?” pops up on the screen.) “If I start spending my dividends?” (Scrabble pieces transfer the word “DIVIDENDS” into the word “SPEND.”) “If I buy another 30 acres?” (The word “extend?” is shown with an arrow pointing to the map of a lake.) “If I travel Europe for a year?” (Snapshot of a generic European city, maybe Rome, maybe Venice, hard to tell.)

The question is repeated: “Am I going to be OK?” Through an editing technique involving something resembling smoke, the snapshot morphs into a tree with expanding branches for each second half of the question: “In 10 Years?” “In 20 Years?” Yet another morphing technique follows, as a Polaroid of a man in a soldier's uniform corresponds with the question, “What if I live as long as my father?” Another Polaroid, of an older man and a younger man who look alike: “What if I help my son start his own practice?” We pan back to a collage of snapshots and that central phrase in the middle of the screen: “am I going to be OK?” (Lowercase verbatim.) The narrator takes us home: “At Wachovia Securities, our financial advisors start with your life, and plan your money around it.” We end on the Wachovia Securities logo and the voice-over pleading: “Talk to us.” (Apparently, they're lonely.)

Message: Don't be scared, little client; we have all the answers for you. Terms like “asset allocation,” “rebalancing” and “wealth management” only amount to real-world questions of real people with real concerns. Money is not the reason for hiring a Wachovia rep; life is.

Effectiveness: The mishmash of images is scattered and confusing. The commercial is also shot in a sepia tone that lulls a viewer into sleep. If this aired during a televised golf match — where the ad was introduced — it would fit right into those lazy rhythms, and you'd forget about it the second it ended, if not earlier.

What the Reps Say: They're unimpressed. One rep cited the clichéd nature of the clients' concerns. “I think most of the people in the commercial have the worries that Wachovia would like them to have, instead of what they actually are,” one says. “In reality, it's always much more complicated than the ad implies.” Another puts it more succinctly: “It's boring.”

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