E*TRADE Traitor Blunder (2016 Jun)

by Barry A. Liebling

E*TRADE is a large, successful discount brokerage firm. (Disclosure – I have been a satisfied client for many years.) Customers typically do their own investing online and buy and sell stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other financial products. From 2001 until 2014 E*TRADE was well-known for commercials featuring babies talking in adult voices about investing. I did not particularly enjoy the baby commercials, but they did not offend me.

Recently E*TRADE has stumbled backwards with its television advertising. It has been showing the Benedict Arnold commercial which is apparently successful at capturing the attention of target customers, but will be a long-term liability for the E*TRADE brand. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYhwtRJp0y8

Here is a summary of the 15 second commercial:
In an outdoor setting Benedict Arnold, dressed in a blue Continental Army uniform, stands in front of a table with an open notebook computer. Also on the table are two eighteenth century single-shot pistols, a magnifying glass, and an oil lamp.
Benedict Arnold: “I am Benedict Arnold, the infamous traitor, and I know a thing or two about trading. So I trade with E*TRADE – where true traders trade on a trademarked trade platform. And is…”
Out of sight a man interrupts and yells: “Get off the computer traitor.”
Benedict Arnold defiantly says: “I won’t.”
Two men fire a cannon in the background which startles and apparently frightens Benedict Arnold.

What does this commercial reveal about E*TRADE? The company did some investigating about its effects before it ran the ad, but it did not consider the enduring consequences of the communication.

Let’s consider how E*TRADE probably proceeded. While I have not spoken to anybody at E*TRADE or its advertising agency, as a marketing research professional I have first-hand familiarity with the typical chain of events.

Early, unfinished versions of the 15 second spot were shown to people who represent E*TRADE’s target market – probably potential customers as well as current customers. Research participants were shown the Benedict Arnold idea along with several other advertising concepts and were asked to rate each of them according to its intrusiveness, how interesting it was, the degree to which it communicated that it was an E*TRADE message, how amusing it was, and the extent to which it made them feel positive or negative towards E*TRADE. Compared to the other rough commercial ideas under consideration, the Benedict Arnold approach tested well.

The entire process was repeated, this time with more polished versions of the commercial. Again, members of the target market gave the Benedict Arnold execution relatively high ratings.

It is likely that before the commercial was put in its final form the E*TRADE team did some quantitative testing – where a larger number of potential customers rated their reactions to Benedict Arnold on numerical scales. The commercial passed this test with scores that were considered acceptable to the marketing professionals.

So E*TRADE executives knew in advance that the Benedict Arnold commercial would probably capture viewers’ attention, be associated with E*TRADE, and be judged as amusing.

But the people behind the commercial failed to consider what viewers will think after they see the commercial several times and reflect on its implications. The more you look at the Benedict Arnold commercial, the more you realize that it portrays E*TRADE in a bad light that is strategically disadvantageous to the brand. Here are some observations.

Note well that in the long run E*TRADE will succeed if customers and potential customers regard it as having integrity and possessing a sincere commitment to working in the interests of its clients. The Benedict Arnold commercial undermines this objective.

The commercial zooms in on the similarity of two words – “trader” someone who trades, and “traitor” – a person who commits treason. Of course, it does not state that the two concepts are comparable. But does it suggest that being an infamous traitor is not so bad, and making fun of it is appropriate and witty? To a brokerage firm the concepts of treason and loyalty are vital. Everything a financial services company says to the public should reinforce the idea that the firm is committed to being honest with its customers. And if it fails to do so, customers will be inclined to take their business elsewhere. Why run an ad that might be interpreted as any tolerance for treason? Consider two parallel examples from other industries. What would you think of a food company that ran ads with jokes about poison? How would you judge a tool company that ran a humorous spot featuring Lizzy Borden?

There is a long tradition in advertising of associating a brand with admired celebrities – including entertainers, athletes, scientists, and politicians. The idea is to have the positive feelings potential customers have for the famous person transfer to the brand. In the Benedict Arnold commercial the brand is linked to someone who is universally despised – exactly the opposite approach. In fairness, writers of the commercial will explain that it is not to be taken seriously. Their intention was to be deliberately facetious. They assume that their sophisticated, hip audience will immediately get the joke. But the joke does not make E*TRADE look good. Why boast that a villain is fond of your product? A creative copywriter could have crafted a humorous commercial where Benedict Arnold – the traitor – deliberately avoids E*TRADE because the company does not sanction cheating and is much too good for him. In a similar vein the commercial could have humorously suggested that E*TRADE is just right for Benedict Arnold’s nemesis – George Washington (famous for the phrase “I cannot tell a lie.”).

E*TRADE has a reputation for using humor in its television commercials, and humor can be an effective tactic in the advertising arena. But the Benedict Arnold spot is a strategic blunder because it suggests that the firm does not have a serious commitment to its essential mission.

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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