Credit where it’s due only

While Barclays Bank’s chief executive will doubtless be avoiding it, DavidBernstein asks why anyone else should feel drawn to a new type of ‘cutting-edge’ credit card

My first mentor in advertising had three rules for headlines: ‘Isolate the consumer, mention the name of the product and state the benefit the product confers’. A trainee copywriter learned the mantra and was in trouble if those rules were broken. As you developed, you obeyed the spirit rather than the letter and made sure the advertisement was targeted, branded and that it offered a benefit.

I wonder what my late guru would have made of The Royal Bank of Scotland’s current ad for its new Advanta credit card. The headline reads: ‘Before we cut the rates… we cut the plastic’. The two parts top and tail an illustration of the card. Its bottom right-hand corner is a curve. The text begins, ‘With its cutting-edge design of a curved corner and innovative see-through middle, the revolutionary new RBS Advanta card certainly looks great. But what really sets it apart are its rates. And some amazing features…’

Those features could wait. What I wanted to know (apart from whether a cutting edge can be curved until I remembered oriental daggers in yarns of my schooldays) was the benefit to me of the shape and the hole. The ad proclaims the difference, but not the difference the difference makes.

It reminded me of the craze in the 1930s for streamlining, which made sense on aircraft, trains and automobiles, but little on furniture, other than associating the object with the spirit of the age. Where was a functional advantage to the consumer? Is the card physically easier to handle, to insert at ATMs? Does it help the user locate the magnetic strip or to find the card in the dark or to distinguish it – by sight and by feel – from all the other cards in a purse or wallet?

And the hole? Would I ever have cause to put a credit card to my eye? Maybe I could pretend to be examining its small print while secretly prying on someone. Was it some bizarre interpretation by the Royal Bank of Scotland of corporate transparency? Or, with the nation’s debt reaching crisis level, was this the bank’s socially responsible way of reminding us of the hole that plastic is making in our pockets?

To find out, I rang the freephone number in the advertisement. As I waited, another benefit suggested itself. Less plastic, eco-friendly. ‘How can I help you?’ asked a friendly voice. ‘Why is the card curved and why does it have a hole?’ ‘No reason’, said the lady. ‘It’s just a novelty. It looks different.’

That’s it then? All form and no function. A ‘design feature’. I could at least have made a stab. ‘It’s a friendly shape and has a nice feel. After all, a Polo mint has a hole in the middle and no one asks why…’

I do as it happens and, when time permits, three times. A ‘three whys man’ is more likely to get to the truth. Try it sometime. Why(2) should RBS want its card to look different? To intrigue people. Why(3)? So that they remember it and are more likely to contact the bank.

The Independent is conducting an experiment in the London area, where the paper is available in two sizes, standard broadsheet and new tabloid. Why(1) is it doing the latter? To make it commuter friendly. Why(2)? So that commuters having trouble in crowded trains with broadsheets (especially other broadsheets) will try The Independent. Why(3)? To convert them into regular purchasers.

I bought the small version. I felt I was reading a different paper, not The Independent that I know. It certainly wasn’t a tabloid in feel or, of course, content. The design works well, is organic. Surprisingly, it seems to have more gravitas than the broadsheet version. Quite the reverse of what I had expected. It does not bring tabloid baggage.

If anything, I was instinctively reminded of Le Monde and the London Review of Books. Maybe because the op-ed pieces, which compete with each other in the big format, here have room to breathe and assume thereby a greater importance. And, obviously, the size is convenient if you read it while travelling.

This is a difference that makes a difference. Unlike Advanta. Coincidentally, the mini Indie I bought carried an ad for The Co-operative Bank’s credit card. It has three variants – Standard, Gold and Platinum. Its name? Advantage. A name not dissimilar… Now could that be the real reason Advanta cut the plastic? Advanta is Advantage with a bit lopped off.

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