BLOG – E*TRADE and The Evolution of Retirement Advertising

How do you get people to think about and act on critical life tasks that they just don’t want to think about?

If you’re over 35 and/or have any combination of children, older parents or significant others, have you made out a will? Do you have life insurance? Have you talked to your kids about when to pull or not pull the plug if you’re terminally ill? Have you talked to your parents about where they will live and who will take care of them when they can no longer be independent? Have you planned for their funerals? For yours? Will you have enough money to live in the manner to which you’ve grown accustomed when you can no longer work? Will you even be able to get by?

Are you in a good mood yet?

This is the dilemma of marketing retirement savings plans, life insurance, elder care, funeral planning and other cheery products and services. Facing mortality is not pretty.

It’s no wonder that the pharma companies have settled on a proven formula for all their ads that accentuate the positive in a potentially very bleak world. They embrace something like Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. There’s a life threatening or debilitating disease, initially greeted with rejection or denial. Then, a journey to the doctor, where the battle is joined with the aid of a magical weapon – a potion or Excalibur of sorts. World order is restored, transforming the outcast to a celebrated figure who lives happily ever after.

But that storyline doesn’t quite work for the problems associated with old age. While life-limiting or life-threatening dangers exist in both these worlds, pharma ads take place in a world that is the mirror opposite of retirement.

Drug commercials present an unjust world filled with pain, sometimes with the possibility of imminent death. But there is always a happy ending.  In the world of retirement savings and investment plans, life, at the moment, is very good. But live too much in the moment and you may be ruined. Their motivation is having you ponder the question, “Will I be alone and destitute in my old age?”

Who wants to think of that? Wouldn’t you rather think about NOW, to enhance your life with that exotic vacation, a kitchen remodel or that new car?

Broadly speaking, there are two approaches to this challenge, the rational and the emotional. This is no different in any category. However, both options for retirement savings plans need to lay out the problem: Save now or you’ll run out of money and live out your last years in poverty and misery.

The rational approach is categorized by Prudential. They’ve been running smart spots for several years with “real people” in clever (though contrived) situations that leverage some kind of grand scale graphic visualization to communicate the retirement dilemma. Giant dominoes, walkways that light up with footsteps, oversized bar graphs and yards of ribbon are employed interactively for “live” demonstrations, driving home the point that we should start saving sooner or how much more than expected we need to put aside to live out our lives in a decent manner.

This campaign has been running for years, so I would think it’s been successful. I’m certainly in the target market here, and can testify that I have strong, unaided awareness of this campaign. However, while I could describe the spots in detail, one important nugget of information did elude me. Until I looked it up, I had no idea of the brand behind the ads.

Did they make me think about retirement? Certainly. Were the ads informative, memorable, and even fun? They were. Did they inspire me to action? Not at all. I felt they were lecturing to me. The facts are nice, but as I always say, facts never matter in life, love, politics and marketing. Everyone knows you should start saving early in life, setting aside the highest percentage of your income as possible after your basic needs are met, along with a few indulgences.

But telling a 40-year old who can finally buy that Mercedes to save the money and buy a Honda instead is like telling an overweight person to diet and exercise. Of course they know bacon cheeseburgers and fries aren’t doing them any good. But they’re yummy and I want them and I deserve to eat what I want because I work hard and I live with so much stress and (fill in your other rationalizations here).

Then, there’s the emotional approach. I can’t get enough of the E*TRADE This Is Getting Old spot that premiered on this year’s Super Bowl and has been getting a lot of airtime lately. The ad shows old people – 80’s and 90’s old – getting up and going to work every day because they can’t afford retirement. Their professions include airline pilot, tech support, delivering packages, office work, brain surgeon, basketball referee, skyscraper window washer, stuntman, lifeguard, fireman and DJ.

It’s funny. Really funny. Visuals are set to re-written lyrics of the catchy, calypso-style “Banana Boat” song made famous by Harry Belafonte: “I’m 85 and I want to go home.”

Targeted to Boomers and Gen X’ers, and likely written by Millennials, the spot transforms the potentially scary to the absurd. This is not a lecture. It’s more like your best friend saying “have another French fry fat boy” when you’re constantly complaining that you want to lose weight but refuse to change your behavior. You don’t need a lecture on the deleterious long-term effects of being overweight and you’ll tune it out. Humor softens the blow, playfully suggesting through“insult,”as only a best friend can, that he cares about you and that what you’re doing isn’t working that well.

You can lay out the facts to evoke an emotion like fear, but those facts could very well put your audience on the defensive, encouraging them to tune out the noise. The tactic of showing happy people living the good life in their golden years can also conjure up sweet thoughts, but that’s a “your brand here” spot. Nothing proprietary about it.

So give Prudential credit for framing the facts in a more engaging way. However, it’s E*TRADE that continues its legacy of great advertising, raising the bar for retirement savings ads with this highly memorable, human, funny, proprietary and motivating approach.

Another campaign to watch, one that’s touting itself as a game changer,  is the recently launched John Hancock series of videos  that can accessed online at the Fast Company site. Only the first episode is now available. According to Adweek, “actors Pete Holmes and Jamie Lee from HBO’s Crashing play two characters who get a humorous, over-the-top glimpse at all of the unplanned retirement challenges through a virtual reality experience.”

“So many people just talk about not having enough money [for retirement] and you don’t actually think about what you’re going to do with that time,” said Kate Ardini, avp of brand strategy at John Hancock. “This is [meant to] connect with the emotional side of retirement as opposed to the scary graph charts that show that you’re never going to have enough money.”

The goal, as stated in the Adweek piece, was for the videos to seem “earnest ad genuine,” with its characters portraying a “natural,” “organic” relationship. Further, the campaign would evoke “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “You have a loose outline, and then fill it in with your own conversation and improv,” said Jamie Lee.

They’re certainly saying all the right things, and we’ll see how this plays out. But after seeing the first installment, I find the execution lacking and have no desire to watch more. It’s no “Curb.” Clever, yes, but nothing much funny or engaging about it. Not “pretty, pretty good.” Not even “pretty good.” These are the hazards of ad people pretending to be screenwriters.

I’ll leave the final word on retirement ads to John Oliver. Check out the tail end of his segment on the topic with his brilliant fake ad starring Billy Eichner and Kristin Chenoweth.

  • Jeannie Ashford
    Posted at 11:12h, 28 March Reply

    So, have you done anything about retirement since you started seeing the E*Trade ads?

    • jbhirsch
      Posted at 11:25h, 28 March Reply


  • Kelly Shea-Bradley
    Posted at 12:45h, 28 March Reply

    Great article – and LOVE the John Oliver segment!

    • jbhirsch
      Posted at 12:58h, 28 March Reply

      Thanks Kelly!

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