It's not always fun to be the butt of a joke, but in the financial services industry, it's often unavoidable. Some companies are embracing this role to turn the mockery into marketing.
Banks and card networks have worked hard to rebuild a message of trust following the onset of the financial crisis, which so rattled the U.S. culture that the rampant bank failures and home foreclosures were ridiculed in kids' movies and video games. None have given up this mission, but some are learning to achieve success even when giving up control of the message.
One of the latest examples is American Express, which built an inspirational marketing campaign only to see it lampooned by actor Chris Hemsworth and the cast of Saturday Night Live.
The parody followed the style of inspirational commercials in which entertainers like Aretha Franklin and Mindy Kaling talk about overcoming adversity to achieve their dreams, with Amex supporting their success. The version by SNL and Hemsworth famous for portraying Marvel's Thor described the challenges he had to overcome: "They said I was too tall, too blond, my muscles were too big."
Amex may be unique in that it has to shatter its longstanding image as a card for the elite if it wants to expand its audience. But it is the latest of many financial companies courting controversy intentionally or otherwise through its marketing. SNL informed American Express that the parody would air because Amex had one of its ads, featuring Kaling, slated to run on the show.
"Part of it is changing the way people think about our brand," said Caitlin Stefanik, director of public affairs and communications for corporate sponsorship and advertising for American Express.
Amex even participated in the Twitter reactions to the SNL parody after it aired, demonstrating its quick grasp of the way to capitalize on an apparent attack on its message. Overall, American Express feels good about the reaction and the attention the parody received, Stefanik said.
"I think they are recognizing that if they want to break through, they have to be talked about and tweetable," said Campbell Edlund, president of EMI Strategic Marketing. In the age of social media, the average TV viewer tunes out a lot of commercials because "they don't want to be 'advertised' to," Edlund said.
Ideally, if a payments company wants to win on that stage, a message has to be something that the audience would want to share, Edlund said.
Other companies have played up the idea of bankers being out of touch and self-centered. Central National Bank in Waco, Texas created a series of YouTube ads with this message, such as its 2014 President's Day ad in which banker Joe Nesbitt assumed the holiday was meant to honor bank presidents.
The company followed this in 2015 with a video where Nesbitt bemoaned that, even though President's Day is a holiday for few businesses other than banks, he still has to come to work on Flag Day and Arbor Day.
Two years ago, Capital One courted controversy with an ad featuring Samuel L. Jackson pitching the bank's Quicksilver credit card loyalty program, which he said delivers rewards "every damn day."
The intent was to be consistent with Jackson's often-vulgar screen persona, but the mild profanity didn't fly with some viewers, and Capital One quickly swapped in an ad with cleaner language.
"Capital One probably had its hesitation moment, but the ad was talkable and tweetable, and it added to the campaign and magnified the impact of the paid advertising they were already doing," Edlund said.
Discover has famously attempted a similar tactic of shining a spotlight on the pain points of being a credit card user. The company's 2010 "Peggy" ad campaign made a star of an unhelpful foreign customer service rep (the message being that Discover customers would never encounter such a person).
In the ads, Peggy was the villain, an inept male call center employee using a false name who would abruptly hang up on customers when he could not solve their problems. But the character itself became something of a star, and one fan even asked Discover to have Peggy help propose to his girlfriend.
Banks have long known that it is difficult to describe or market tangible services like deposits and loans, so they have focused on the differences in their plastic cards. The vast and unfiltered landscape of the Internet not only dilutes issuers' messages but takes away the need to make their ads conservative and family-friendly. Even when it is unintentional, banks need to play along with the controversy to make the most of any attention their efforts generate.
"You really need to up your game in how you talk about payments and get the consumer to think of payments as integral to their life," Edlund said.