Commentary

A Very Special, Treacle-Down, Holiday Message

Recently, I caught the tail end, so to speak, of a lavishly produced commercial — a real holiday showstopper, involving a magical stagecoach, complete with  gas lamps on the sides of the old cab, a Marlboro-Man type driver at the reins, and six mighty steeds. They gallop through fields and valleys, and miles of fresh snow, to arrive in some fairytale Western town of yesteryear where the locals are out on the main square being festive. The town cheers at the carriage’s arrival, and a little boy, shown waiting at a window with his dog, runs outside and receives a mysterious silver package.

Whew! That’s lots of Christmas miracle right there!

At first I thought, given the multiple horses and bells, it might be a message from Budweiser. But this is about more than mere beer — or a jokey ending. Rather, this is an elegiac fairytale, a spot so sparkly and magic-besotted that it makes the folks at Hogwarts seem a bit pedestrian.

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Impressed with this level of mythmaking, I ran the spot back to the beginning. And I was glad I did, because the details here are so unusual that they might have been peyote–based: The six horses, the carriage, and hunky driver arrive out of nowhere to help an old-fashioned mail truck, stuck in the snow. As they take the parcels and journey on, the horses pass a group of classic snowpeople, decked out in branches, scarves, etc. Sensing an opening, the snowpeople apparently wordlessly offer up to their equine betters a certain key appendage.

“Please, sir, eat the noses off of our faces?” they seem to be asking. So the horses eat the noses, uh, carrots, and thus fortified, it’s onward Dancer, Prancer and Donner.

But wait, we’re mixing Christmas stories here, and Rudolph had a red nose, but it wasn’t a carrot, right? There’s even enough cross-holiday merriment to cover our Jewish friends!  

Because, like the limited amount of oil that lasted eight nights in the story of Hanukah, these two carrots seem to do the trick for the horses for the whole trip!

Finally, the message is about hope, and joy, about being transported back to a better time, pushing through your cynicism to …

Wait a minute! Does the final frame really say, “Wishing you a magical holiday,”  with the Wells Fargo logo in the corner?

Yes, that Wells Fargo, the bank known for its powerful Pony Express/Western carriage delivery iconography. You know, the one that was fined $185 million by various governmental agencies in September for opening at least 2 million false accounts, known in the industry as “cross-selling”? For which 5,300 low-level but “over-incentivized” employees were fired?

You might remember the televised hearings, with Senator Elizabeth Warren playing a latter-day Jimmy Stewart character, grilling a mumbling and obviously stumped Wells CEO John Stumpf.:

Warren: "Do you know how much money, how much value your stock holdings in Wells Fargo gained while this scam was underway?

Stumpf: First of all, it was not a scam. And cross-sell is a way of deepening relationships. When customers...

Warren: We've been through this, Mr. Stumpf. I asked you a very simple question. Do you know how much the value of your stock went up while this scam was going on?

Stumpf: It's.... all of my compensation is in our public filing…”

She leaves Stumpf stripped bare of more than a few carrot’s worth of dignity. Warren calls him “gutless” and tells him he should resign.

Unshockingly, he did.

One month later, worried about the fallout, Wells Fargo ran — well there’s no better word than “gutless” to describe it — an apology commercial. We see the horses and carriage running in slow motion, while the screen crawls with blah-blah text like “We’re renewing our commitment to you,” and “We promise to make things right.” Slow motion and crawling, surface and subtext all laid bare.

And then there was more: Just last week, a new scandal involving Prudential Insurance broke, showing that Wells Fargo clients were signed up for policies without their authorization.

Not to pile on any more to this huge pile, but it turns out “The Coach and the Snowman” spot was first released three years ago. I understand getting your money’s worth. But it’s a terrible mistake to continue running it now, considering Wells Fargo’s year of scandal.

There’s a metaphor in there somewhere about leaving freezing, defenseless snowpeople noseless.

Or as Warren said at the hearings to John Stumpf: “When it all blew up, you kept your job, you kept your multimillion dollar bonuses and you went on television to blame thousands of $12-an-hour employees who were just trying to meet cross-sell quotas that made you rich. This is about accountability.”

That goes for advertising, too. Carrot, or stick?

10 comments about "A Very Special, Treacle-Down, Holiday Message".
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  1. Jeff Sawyer from GH, December 16, 2016 at 3:07 p.m.

    Elizabeth Warren was heroic in those hearings. 

  2. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners, December 16, 2016 at 3:11 p.m.

    I had the same absolutely incredulous reaction to the shamless pandering in this commercial.  But we would do well to remember that pretty much every bit of this scandal  --  the bank's ability to cross sell because they have so many different products (including investment products), the ability to involve insurance companies and the vastness of these nationwide banks unconstrained by state borders comes back to one simple thing.  The repeal of a little something called the Glass-Steagal Act.  What Scrooge-like, greedy, grasping Republican championed this repeal and signed the bill with glee?  Why, I believe his name was President Clinton.

  3. Jane Farrell from Freelance, December 16, 2016 at 4:08 p.m.

    As you said, it is a terrible mistake to run it this year. That probably never occurred to anyone who had a part in that decision. Executives have tin ears and blind eyes when it comes to how outsiders perceive them. I guarantee you that John Stumpf never thought about how most people would look at his actions. Arrogant and stupid, all at once.

  4. Travis Horn from S3Media, December 16, 2016 at 4:09 p.m.

    Is this a PR blog or one about advertising & marketing? I sometimes wonder how writers for this publication select topics upon which to opine. Warren is no hero, and this is a nice, feel good spot. Stop with the haughty BS, and try writing about core issues affecting our industry!

  5. Jane Farrell from Freelance replied, December 16, 2016 at 5:15 p.m.

    I think a core issue of the ad industry (and its clients) might be their tone deafness.

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 16, 2016 at 6:04 p.m.

    The only bumper sticker ever I would put on my car is for Elizabeth Warren. Pulling out the rug from under you is the name of the game of promising you, that is selling you, a carrot and getting a stick and finding that stick where the sun don't shine. That is what Wells Fargo did (probably still does in other sticky ways, not to mention other financial oligopolies) and that is what Elizabeth Warren is trying to prevent vs the Putinesque slinking the public of our financial institutions. Yes, the repeal of Glass-Stengal was a terrible decision, but remember, it took more than just Bill Clinton to do it.

  7. Joe DePreta from Launchpad, December 16, 2016 at 8:13 p.m.

    Loved it Barbara, thank you!

  8. Helene Kremer from L'esprit de Vin, December 17, 2016 at 3:23 p.m.

    Wow, where was she in 2008 following the FDIC sale of WAMU and rise of JP Morgan Chase?? I'm still sickened nothing happened to anyone with power after the mortgage meltdown which was orchestrated by so many high-level executives.

  9. George Parker from Parker Consultants replied, December 19, 2016 at 8:34 a.m.

    Travis... I'll bet you tweet a lot in the middle of the night.

  10. Paul Collins from DigitalFish Inc. replied, December 19, 2016 at 4:56 p.m.

    I was also a bit disturbed by living snowpeople offering up their noses as food. There's a lesson here to be careful when using digital characters with apparent sentience. Talking cows, chickens, pigs and M-and-M's all can be cringe-inducing.

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