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Your Money: We have ways of making you buy

Financial service companies are making full use of television time to promote their various products
A young Dad walks into a chip shop with his son, and finds he has to borrow pounds 1 from the child before he can pay. The kid obliges, but snarls at his Dad: "You never think about when you're going to need money." What is this television commercial trying to sell us?

The answer is not chips, but life insurance. Pearl's new ad is just one of many which uses children - even children like this one - to sell a bank or insurance company's wares. This is just one way they hope to appeal to our gut instincts rather than our rational judgement.

It is not only soap powder and beer which are sold in this emotive way, but also some of the most important financial products you will ever buy. Figures from advertising analysts, AC Nilsen-MEAL, show that financial advertisers spent more than pounds 200m on TV ads in the past year. This means the sector accounts for 6 per cent of all TV advertising revenue, about the same share as the drinks industry.

Another current campaign which uses children to powerful effect is Standard Life's talking baby ads. The latest ad in the campaign shows Dad chatting away to his loquacious offspring while they wait for Mum to join them in the car. It's a heartwarming scene.

Dr Raj Persaud, consultant psychiatrist at London's Maudsley Hospital, says advertisers know exactly what they are doing when they push emotional buttons like these in the viewer's head. He says: "They're trying to link the notion of responsibility about kids to responsibility about your financial affairs.

"What comes across with the Standard Life couple is that they're good parents - they play with their kid, and the kid's well-behaved. They are excellent parents, and excellent parents are responsible about their financial future. That's the link they're trying to make."

Sue Keane, a chartered psychologist who specialises in marketing work, says this particular Standard Life ad is one of the few financial ads which may strike a chord with women. This is not just because it uses a baby - although that helps - but because the ad implies that Mum is the family's real boss.

Ms Keane says: "It's often the woman who has most influence in the family's key financial decisions, even though it might not be her who signs the cheque. But very few of the personal finance ads on television are likely to appeal to women."

It is no coincidence that the families seen in ads like these are so down-to-earth, as the advertisers hope a few gritty touches will make viewers identify with the characters shown. Dr Persaud says: "Standard Life seemed to go out of their way to get a very ordinary-looking couple. The woman in particular is very unglamorous."

The message would seem to be one of reassurance, with the advertiser saying: "Look, they're nothing special. If they can sort themselves out, so can you."

Sometimes the imagery used is more subtle, as in the case of the CGU campaign currently on air. These ads tell us that two insurance giants - Commercial Union and General Accident - have merged to form a single company. Keane points out that the campaign's first ad uses water as a recurring theme, with images such as a flooded kitchen and a fishtank. For her, the water conveys an impression of freshness and a new start - central factors in the message the new company wants to get across.

CGU director of marketing, Nick Hall, confirms this symbolism is no accident. He says: "That's clearly one of the messages we wanted to get across. New beginnings was very clearly a part of the strategy, and with that sense of new beginnings, the water started to take shape in there."

But clever imagery can sometimes backfire. The latest Scottish Widows commercial, first shown on Monday, shows a retired executive going home from his leaving party, complete with presentation golf clubs. He descends a long office staircase to meet a dark, cowled, figure who could easily be taken for the Grim Reaper.

In fact, the figure at the foot of the stairs is the Scottish Widow herself, ready to escort our hero not into the next world, but into a happy retirement.

Persaud agrees that it would be easy for casual viewers to mistake the Widow for Death, at least in this particular commercial. "I'm not sure the advert works for that reason," he says. "It makes you want to avoid retirement, really."

Because this ad is so new, it has yet to be tested by research in its final form. But Scottish Widow's advertising manager Ann Shields says most viewers have accepted the Widow quite happily in other ads. Ms Shields says: "You do get a few people who say she's a bit morbid. It's not unheard of, but the majority of people think her image serves us very well."

There is nothing new about financial ads using emotion or humour to make their pitch. What is rarer is real factual content, something which a 30-second TV ad is not suited to convey.

Dr Persaud sees dangers here too. On 19 October, the Albert Hall will host an evening showing a selection of "classic TV commercials" of the past 30 years, taken from the vaults of advertising agency BMP DDB. Among the three financial services commercials chosen is a 1994 Barclaycard ad, using comedian Rowan Atkinson as a James Bond-style secret agent. The ad is amusing enough, but the only factual information conveyed is that a Barclaycard can be used in a lot of different places round the world, plus the claim that it is "all you need".

Dr Persaud says: "They're trying to make you feel affectionate towards the product, and therefore they're steering you away from a strict intellectual choice - for example, what is the interest rate that Barclaycard charge? They're not even saying that the APR should be a factor in your decision making, when it obviously should be."

In fact, Barclaycard has traditionally charged a far higher APR than no-frills rival cards. Barclaycard's current TV ads make no more mention of this inconvenient fact than did the earlier Atkinson campaign.

Where factual information is given, as in the current ads from Virgin and B2, it often appears as subtitles flashed across the bottom of the screen. Given that the average viewer is likely to have only half an eye on the screen at this point, the chances of this information being read - let alone understood - is negligible.

But, whatever the shortcomings of financial services ads, few seem to attract complaints from the public. The latest report from the Independent Television Commission, shows just one financial ad had a viewer complaint upheld in August.

This was a Cornhill Insurance ad, which promised enquirers would receive no follow-up calls from sales staff. One lady complained that she had, in fact received a call from a Cornhill Direct representative who, the ITC says, "sought to persuade her to follow-up her initial enquiry."

Cornhill claimed the call was not a sales call, but a "courtesy call". The ITC found this distinction an unconvincing one, and demanded Cornhill remove the "no sales people" reference its ad.

By contrast, the recent ad for Levi jeans which revolved round a - fictional - hamster dropping dead brought in a total of 519 complaints.

Dr Raj Persaud is the author of `Staying Sane - How to Make Your Mind Work for You' (Metro, pounds 12 99)