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 Texas : Feature : Columns : "They shoe horses, don't they?"

"The Sound of
One Hand Counting Money"

by Luke Warm
They shoe horse
An advertising campaign for some bank or financial planning company begins each of their commercials with a question: "What can ---------- teach us about -------?

For example: "What can a sports stadium without sufficent restrooms teach us about retirement?" or "What can a child's shoe thrown from a moving vehicle teach us about pensions?"

"Us" in these ads is not just you and me. They would have you believe there is an army of bankers and money managers riding around on double-deck buses taking notes on cultural phenomena and life in general. "What can a drive-by shooting teach us about saving?" Hmmm. How about: "If you're dead, you can't spend it."

The narrator answers these weighty questions immediately after they are asked, giving the viewer little time to make a sarcastic suggestion. Where's the fun in that? The answers are meant to provoke thought - at least until the appearance of the next commercial. The ads might be successful; but the answers are so profound - that I can't remember the company's name.

The voice asking the profound questions isn't shown. His voice has a patient and instructive tone - like that of a wise monk. It's a little like the 1970s televison series Kung Fu. "What can twenty-six circus performers on one bicycle teach us about annunities, Grasshopper?"

We have to wonder how would the voice be dressed if shown? Would he be wearing a saffron-colored robe or a Brooks Brothers suit? A pin-striped saffron robe?

The first commercial in this seemingly never-ending series shows a couple in evening wear canoeing down a mirror-like river at dusk toward a lighted mansion. The company might be suggesting that they've finally figured out how their clients can take "it" with them. Does the mansion represent heaven? Slipping through heaven's back door is pretty shrewd, you must admit. For one thing you don't have to tip the parking valet. On the other hand, river mud might cause a slip on the marble floors. The canoe is low in the water, suggesting it may be laden with bags of gold coin which the paddling investors will be spending eternally in (duty-free) heavenly boutiques.

On the other hand, the river might be the Styx and the lighted mansion might be Hell's welcoming station. The money would still be handy. It could be used for bribes (seating away from politicians and lawyers, ice water, etc.). But if it is indeed Hell, there would surely be surly canoe valets who would pull you to shore with their pointed prehensile tails and then proceed to take their tip.

"I just don't think that I should have to watch this commercial."
How about the ad where a woman tells a banker "I just don't think I should have to pay for that." After first looking bewildered to the long list of services that she "just feels" she shouldn't have to pay pay for, the banker appears to be going for a gun, but instead pulls out a form (reserved for the rare smart depositor) and finally says "Neither do we." We all breathe a collective sigh of relief that the awkward moment has been defused. This particular ad was evidently so successful that they made a sequel.

In the second ad the same woman is home packing. She's either moving into a bigger house because she's been promoted for being so smart or she's moving because of death theats from the banker who lost his job for not squeezing service charges out of her. She's telling a man (either a husband or a hired mover): "So, do you know what the bank-guy (not banker, but bank-guy) said when I told him I didn't want to pay for anything?" The cynical husband/ moving-guy offers "Bye?" The woman frowns at his cynical attitude and says: "No, he said he didn't think so either." The man then tilts his head in the way dogs do when you talk to them in a strange voice.

"I'm not really Abraham Lincoln, I'm just a Raymond Massey impersonator."

Some of the companies in these ads don't just manage money - they manage "wealth." Take my word for it, people to whom the term "wealthy" applies have had money managers for years - probably for generations. They're called family.

Finally there's a company with ads featuring a (pretty good) Lincoln-impersonator who (depending on the commercial) is either advising a man on his golf game or piloting a retired couple through the canals of Venice. It might seem disrespectful to have our beloved Lincoln portrayed in this manner, but please notice that in these ads Lincoln is advising, not merely caddying. He is also shown catching a golf ball in mid-flight (a talent that the real Lincoln was quite proud of, but that most history books have omitted). As a gondolier - Lincoln doesn't sing, although he does gracefully dip under a low bridge. Who would've known?

What's next? Teddy Roosevelt for Outback Steakhouses? Grover Cleveland for Just for Men? Franklin Pierce for tattoo parlors? The problem with this commerical is that the Lincoln impersonator is so convincing that while you're looking for a $5 bill to compare faces, you miss the company's name. I think it begins with an "L".

The same network that shows these commercials also has frequent ads for companies like Boeing Aircraft, Union Pacific and Kerr-McGee Oil Drilling. Just the type of companies that need name-recognition. I think it might be time to switch to programing sponsored by food products.

What can television ads teach us about real life? Not very much.
John Troesser
"They shoe horses, don't they?" - November 1, 2004 Column
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