Sam Dunn: Come on, superstars, tell 'em saving is sexy

Imagine what the right A-list celebrity could do for personal finance in schools
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The Independent Online

Plenty may disagree but Barclaycard hit a bum note by employing Jennifer Aniston's denim-clad backside in its latest advertising campaign. It wasn't just the abysmal, sixth-form-style script and paucity of invention. Rather, it was the crude attempt to use sex to sell finance.

I'm hoping viewers are much smarter than the creatives give them credit for. With luck, they'll all say: "I'll bet Jennifer raked it in for that; good on her. Now, what's on the other channel?"

Or will they watch the ad, think of the former Friends star's rear and consider taking out a Barclaycard or switching to it from their current lender?

The reality is probably somewhere in between, but the power of celebrities in projecting a message is undeniable. And this is where the financial services industry is missing a trick.

Instead of simply hoofing huge wads of cash to the stars to endorse credit cards and insurance, the sector could find a much more worthy role for the A-listers.

Imagine what the right star could do with a campaign such as that of the Personal Finance in Education Group (Pfeg), which is labouring to get personal finance taught more widely in schools.

Our thirst for gossip about the famous would mean that a picture of the celebrity at a launch or dinner backing such a project would be splashed in the pages of Heat.

The interest generated among the most valuable audience of all - the young consumers who spend money - would be remarkable.

While it may be too much to expect teenagers to chat about the merits of one young saver's account compared to another, their favourite rapper or movie star's link to a savings campaign could actually spark a genuine interest in personal finance.

Just picture the scene ... Samuel L Jackson (recently, the front man for a Barclays ad) wanders on screen and sashays up to the camera.

He taps it, gently first but then harder, before saying: "Why aren't you lot saving more money? Come on, it isn't difficult."

Sure, the script needs a bit of polishing, but you get the idea. And it is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Wendy van den Hende, the chief executive of Pfeg, says a football star such as Euro 2004 hero Wayne Rooney would be an apt role model. Given that his sports career will last only a limited time, good financial planning will be vital to him.

Ms Van den Hende argues that many obstacles would need to be overcome - including the cost and sustainability of such a campaign. Money could well be better spent on supplying training and materials for teachers to use in personal finance lessons.

This question of funding is important. While Barclaycard is happy to spend squillions to hire Aniston, and Barclays bank to splash out on star actors such as Gary Oldman and Donald Sutherland, the cash earmarked for consumer education in schools and among the wider public is, by comparison, pitiful.

For example, the bank's annual contribution to Pfeg's Excellence and Access programme is barely £170,000. Its £40,000 for a joint scheme with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux to offer free financial advice to the public is a welcome step in the right direction, but it could afford so much more.

At the heart of this issue - and that of the cheque Barclaycard signed for Aniston - is the desperate desire of the financial services industry to get more people to buy its products.

Goodness knows, it needs something to revive the faith.

After a litany of disgrace that takes in pension mis-selling scandals, the Equitable Life fiasco, endowment mortgage shortfalls, split cap investment trust collapses and the mis-selling of high-income precipice bonds, companies need to put a shiny face back on the industry.

But then again, celebrity endorsement doesn't always work. Witness Whoopi Goldberg's recent dismissal as the face of Slim-Fast after a gag about President George Bush's family name and female genitalia.

And in the case of a "savings" celebrity, no one would want somebody merrily promoting thrift only to find they had been running up gargantuan debts of their own.

But if you are famous, keen on publicity but partial to saving a bob or two and looking to spread the "s" word, give me a call. I'd love to hear from you.

Melanie Bien is away.

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