Bizarre ad: greenwash, or just a guy in a bear suit?

I'd skipped this article when skimming Slate today, but directed toward it, I watched the HSBC ad on YouTube with the same puzzlement that both the article's author John Swansburg and Joellen Easton, the editor of this blog, expressed.

Neither of them can see how the ad's story and banking are related. I almost can if I squint really, really hard.

Accepting that there's no connection between banking and the storyline here, what is HSBC trying to say about itself?

The ad shows no allegiance to the logging protesters, nor to the loggers, nor the police. And it does an incredible job of maintaining absolute neutrality about the "issue" addressed.

Maybe HSBC is saying that their value is to not judge?

But if that's the case, then aren't they also saying they don't have any values, but they're tolerant of the values of all their customers? Plausible -- and they just lost me as a customer. I use my economic choices to reinforce actions -- which stem from values -- that I think should be widespread. I want a bank that hires from the neighborhood, that serves all communities and customers regardless of income, that invests locally, that recycles and sources environmentally preferable office supplies.

Here's another possible interpretation -- it's a stretch, but in a void as large as this, why not argue something outlandish?

Maybe they know people view stories through their own lens, and hope that when we watch we'll "see" them mirroring back our own values. If that's the case, they're trying to tell me that they're a fan of environmental protection (while also maintaining respect for local economic activities).

In this interpretation, they're actually abdicating all values, while trying to appeal to the values of potential customers. One of those interpretations is a sustainable one. If this is their game, it's greenwash, because by the very nature of this scenario, the other values they're transmitting (law and order, local economics trump the environment) are opposing values.

What **are ** they trying to say about themselves?

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Jeff (Nov 9) makes a good point. That message is certainly in the ad. But this ad works on many other levels too.

For example, on a political level, the ad provides the corporation and the viewers with the old alibi -- “Who's to say?” -- and places the corporation on seemingly-neutral ground.

The ad also invites viewers to join the corporation on that neutral ground. Thus even in this highly politicized, divisive time, it is okay to embrace all sides, or take no side. It is okay to be apathetic, or complacent. And naturally, HSBC would prefer that viewers embrace such a stance ...or non-stance.

Having said all this, the ad still seeks to appeal to young political activists on the left and their less-active liberal allies. If such a person does not watch it, and listen to it carefully, such individuals might very well be swayed to sign up for an HSBC card in the future. Indeed, the imagery itself may put HSBC in positive light for such people, even if later, they don't recall any details from the ad.

And these are precisely the people HSBC wants to get -- in addition to working-class folks laboring in economically precarious industries like logging. All these people are quite likely to have marginal credit ratings.

And, if you know about HSBC -- especially its past trouble w/ predatory lending practices -- then you know that HSBC wants these people to get HSBC credit cards.

In addition to charging high interest rates, HSBC does its very best to maximize the number and amount of overlimit fees & late fees charged to its customers.

For example, HSBC might charge a significant annual membership fee, but it will charge that fee on a date & time which ensures the fee *never* appears on the list of recent transactions -- making it more likely that a customer will go over the limit. (This method & others are described in the many complaints logged against HSBC banks on the BBB website & the websites of similar services.)

Finally, thanks to the recent bankruptcy "reform", HSBC can be quite certain that it will always get its money in the end ...or destroy its customers. Or both.

So regardless of your politics, or your economic status, HSBC welcomes you!


I'm surprised that this ad seemed to miss with so many viewers. The bank connection to the plot is revealed near the end, when Dad bails his daughter out of jail. He's a humble logger, in a town that clearly favors its loggers and their jobs over its hippie tree-hugging squatters. But at the end of the day, when the logger needed some serious money to bail his own hippie daughter out of jail, HSBC came through for him....and thus helped him come through for her. Larger message: whatever larger intractable issues are roiling around us, HSBC will be there for YOU when you really need us.

I find it interesting that this point was lost on so many. Perhaps most law-abiding readers and listeners just couldn't relate to the 'hippie' daughter's passion or the logger's financial emergency.

The ferocity on both sides of the struggle suggests to this viewer that the bank wasn't trying to take a green position at all, but rather trying to claim neutral ground above all that complicated ugliness. Or underneath it, perhaps, closer to the ground, however crazy it gets up there above our day-to-day lives. In its second and final subtitled message as dad and daughter ride off into the sunset, the ad suggests to us all that we might find ourselves in that logger's shoes someday...and HSBC will help us too.

Quite a powerful ad.

The focus expands to any scale beyond the couple. The portrayal is about a couple, a family, a business/customer relationship, a town, or the big world.
It is uncomfortable when commercials grab my emotions - as this one did. I'm used to being able to standoff and meta-process the commercial on all levels. It makes me wonder what else is slipping through?

I think Aaron's interpretation is correct. But I'd like to add something that most discussions of "tolerance" ignore. Tolerance implies a degree of disagreement - if the views of two people are in complete harmony, what would there be to be "tolerant" of? In a democracy, tolerance allows us to have divergent opinions, but maintain our rights to have them without having to quarrel about them. However, to be "politically correct" in the current cultural climate means to "embrace" divergent views and to accept them, without acknowledging the very real differences in the opinions of people.

The answer to Aaron's query: "Question, though - doesn't the equation of Tolerance = Lack of values contribute to polarization and a general attitude of "if you aren't with us, you're against us?" is YES. I believe this has to be overcome before our society gets out of the stagnant pool we are in and moves forward.

What this has to do with HSBC I have no idea. My personal experience with banks in general is that they are here to make a buck - as someone else pointed out - off of the one's who really need it, and will most likely be the ones unable to afford to pay it back. I don't know why that would make them "undeserving"...

And I cringe when I think of the huge interest rates - especially from other credit vendors - that are now allowable. I had an unforeseen emergency once and had to go to a "payday lender" and promise to pay 135% interest, yes you read that right, if the loan wasn't paid off by the next payday. I paid it off in time, but what if I hadn't?

I'm old enough to remember when this was called "loan sharking" and was practiced by a very famous crime family... how did it ever become legal?


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