Peter York on Ads: A cunning attack on Mr Stodgy

No 297: Smile

We're set up for asteroid strikes, instant Ice Ages and Nostradamal predictions generally. Some of us anyway. It's the Millennium spirit. How clever then of the Co-operative Bank - and it is clever - to exploit the mood with an end-of-the-world commercial which positively drives you to its website (www. smile.co.uk) when it's a new online bank that it is selling. It's a nicely judged launch ad - a big teaser statement, a distinctive, deliberately divisive style, and an apparent deliverable.

The bank is running two treatments. In the first it's a parade of strong, sad faces, filmed with one of those under-sea gloom-green filters. Everyone has pronounced noses and deep hollows. Several are black. "The world ends 28 10 99," says the grim caption. Then there's a long pan to a pretty mixed-race girl who looks about 14, but sad, too. "Smile," says the screen in pink letters and a modish Modernist Revival typeface: Smile is the internet bank from the Co-operative Bank.

In the other treatment, there is a sublimely miserablist setting in black and white - a concrete car-park, with tower blocks in the background, and disconsolate people, and cyclists in slo-mo. And rain. A running man, rushes at a shop door where they're turning the card from "open" to "closed". Then they tell you again that the world is ending.

It's intended to recruit a particular group of people - young, "media- savvy", net-literate, all those things of course - screening them out from the less responsive souls who'd far rather interact with the fridge than an online bank. Precisely the group that can see itself being targeted a mile off.

Here, however, the Co-op Bank has a huge advantage in its corporate brand: its non-membership of the Big Four; its "community bank" background; its recent ethical-bank positioning. All that's a better launch-pad for an internet banking initiative than a history as Mr Stodgy of the High Street. And it makes this moody style - there's something reminiscent of the launch campaign for Heat magazine about it - more credible; the Co-op Bank's been doing the New Age look since the early 1990s.

There is already a fair bit of this - steam-age TV advertising selling dedicated online services. There'll be a lot more. Some advertisers - like AOL - aim to make themselves desperately domestic and user-friendly. Others, like Smile, recognise and exaggerate the culture gap. And I suspect its website itself could convince the Big Four's younger customers to move overnight.

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