A PSA tackles the credit crisis one person at a time
When Lowe New York began working on a pro bono Control Your
Credit-themed psa campaign for the U.S. Department of Treasury and The Ad Council, designed to teach 18- to 24-year-olds the importance of managing their credit responsibly, no one involved could have
predicted that the campaign's launch last September would coincide with a crippling credit crisis that began in the United States and spread worldwide.
It was coincidental but fortuitous timing: Now more than ever, young adults - actually, all adults; actually all companies and decades-old banking institutions - need to be up to speed on credit issues.
But while many young adults are certified experts when it comes to unlocking the iPhone, riffing in Guitar Hero and winning beer pong, they are sorely lacking when it comes to financial literacy. High school seniors who took part in a 2008 survey on the topic conducted by the nonprofit Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, answered less than half the questions correctly. "They've been doing this survey every other year since 1997, and the students always get a failing score, which is really depressing," says Dara Duguay, the former executive director for Jump$tart and author of Please Send Money! A Financial Survival Guide for Young Adults on Their Own, who now serves as director of Citi's Office of Financial Education. "If you graded them on an A through F scale, they'd get an F."
And they're not making huge strides in financial literacy when they go on to college. Jump$tart also surveyed college students for the first time this year, and they only scored marginally better on the same test the high school seniors took. Meanwhile, a recent Sallie Mae study revealed more than half of college students rack up over $5,000 in credit card debt while they are in school.
Unfortunately, young adults who run up credit card debt are often unaware how their fico scores (and if you don't know what a fico score is, you'd better start watching The Suze Orman Show) will affect everything from their ability to get an apartment to their ability to get a job, according to research conducted by Lowe New York and The Ad Council, says Matt Picheny, Lowe New York managing director of interactive.
Lowe New York conceptualized two tv spots directed by Aaron Stoller of Chicago's Backyard Productions and two radio ads (in both English and Spanish) demonstrating how a lousy credit score can impact a young person's life in ways he or she might not expect.
Case in point: In a funny tv spot titled "Metal Con," a bunch of heavy-metal dudes psyched to attend a concert pile into a car dressed in GWAR-like gear only to notice that one of the guy's mothers is behind the wheel. "Dude, why is your mother driving us to Metal Con?" one of the guys in the backseat asks.
"Remember when I bought us all snowboards on that credit card and never paid it back? Well, I guess they check that stuff out when you apply for a car loan," the dude responds.
On the radio front, one of the campaign's radio spots titled "Tiny Apartment" has a recent college graduate looking at apartments with a real estate agent. The young woman notes that one of the apartments they just saw looks like a tool shed. "That's because it is a tool shed, dear," the real estate agent informs her. "I thought I would show you the less-than-desirable apartments first because your credit is less-than-acceptable."
While the tv and radio spots, which are running in donated media (The Ad Council didn't have reports listing specific outlets at press time), make crucial points about how a low credit score can interfere with your life, Lowe New York wanted to convey more detailed information about how one's credit score is calculated, so the agency worked with New York design and technology studio Firstborn to create controlyourcredit.gov. All of the tv and radio spots direct people to this site, by the way.
Upon entering the black-and-white site, visitors check into the spooky Bad Credit Hotel and - with guidance from an actor (George Lee Miles, whose résumé includes American Gangster, Malcolm X, The Warriors and two episodes of Kojak) playing multiple characters ranging from a front-desk clerk to a therapist - embark on an interactive game, going from room to room collecting credit-related knowledge. Ultimately, successful players gain entry to Room 850, which is bursting with color and depicts the rewards of having good credit. As the credit savvy among you know, 850 is a perfect FICO score.
The quirky yet informative site proves that financial education doesn't have to be boring. "The whole idea was to make something that was going to be entertaining for the audience, and that's why we went with a game," Picheny says, adding that the Bad Credit Hotel worked as a concept because "we wanted a place that was mysterious, because how credit works is mysterious to a lot of people."
Dan LaCivita, senior vice president and executive director of Firstborn, describes the look of the Bad Credit Hotel as The Shining's Overlook Hotel meets Psycho's Bates Motel. "We wanted this '50s film noir almost Hitchcockian aesthetic," LaCivita says. Constructing the game from a mix of 2D photos, a 3D environment and video, Firstborn later applied a grainy, worn-film look to it, giving the game cinematic flair. The flow of the game itself was as painstakingly crafted as the look of the site was. The goal, according to Picheny, was to make the game challenging but not so challenging that people wouldn't be able to make it to Room 850.
To ensure everyone would get something out of the experience, a cheat sheet of hints is provided to help people who need assistance getting through the game, as well as an html version of the site with the pertinent information for those who don't want to play.
Financial expert Duguay made it all the way through the game and thinks it is a great teaching tool. "When you get to Room 850, you really understand that 850 is a perfect credit score under the fico system," Duguay says, adding, "Studies have shown that the most effective type of financial education is education that is interactive."
As for the overall campaign, was focusing on credit as opposed to dealing with broader money management issues the best move? "When you do a psa campaign, and you don't have a lot of time, you can't have too many messages. So I think their choice of focusing on credit is a really wise one, especially at this time," Duguay says. "I saw a young adult the other day trying to charge a latte at Starbucks, and his credit card was denied. It's frightening when you're trying to charge something that small, and you're already over your limit. But I'm seeing a lot of that."