Advertising: Old habits die hard. Actually, I preferred the umbrella

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The Independent Online

My friend Debbie is always visiting kindly, new-age, financial services people. The ones who like to talk. "Hello," she says, "my name's Debbie and I'm a pre-op transsexual, I'm saving for my operation - I want my bits done nicely - but I'm a bit short, can you help me?" At other times she puts on a grey fright wig and goes in branches to tell them she's afraid of dying, can they help. Debbie's a mystery shopper, testing the routines of customer-facing people, checking how they walk the talk.

I thought of Debbie when I saw the new Abbey commercial (they've dropped the National for good). All human life is there and more. They're inviting you to talk to them about dying and divorce, ageing and poverty, liposuction, pay-rises and how to understand bank letters. How come we never talk about these things, says the voice-over man "important stuff" he says, "stuff that's useful, stuff you can talk to us about, we're Abbey."

This stuff lasts a whole minute - about seven dog years. It's made up of wildly assorted vignettes, set to whimsical "That's life" music by a director who clearly feels he's got the common touch.

A pair of comic old people meet an ancient undertaker (cost of dying). An upper-class couple in evening clothes in a grand house circa 1961. She's obviously saying "Don't Charles, I can't bear it" as he puts a hand on her pale arm. (cost of divorce) This is a strange one. It's weirdly accurate for class and period and utterly irrelevant to 99 per cent of its TV audience. The director must have copied it from a photograph in an old Tatler. Then come some craggy OAPs with interesting faces lit from below, looking miserable in a pub (getting old). The kids at the beach are shot in a stylised way (scraping up some money); a young woman in a swimsuit looks apprehensive in a green, dappled, underground swimming pool (contemplating liposuction); Overalled blokes in a kiddies' wellington boot factory confront their prosperous boss while a black colleague looks on accusingly (how to get a rise).

And there's much more, but I can't go on. Each one is politically correct, whimsical and differently clichéd. The message is about difference - that Abbey's all heart, it doesn't have the cold fish feelings and robotic language of other financial services suppliers. You can go in and show your feelings or share your secretions at any time. Unfortunately this point of difference is precisely the one all the other financial fish folk like too - think of the old lady who says "it doesn't have to be like that" for Natwest, or the First Direct ads which bang on about the sheer human-ness of their responses. Abbey has the first half of its analysis right - people do find banks pretty cold illogical places with silly language. We all know that. But - and this is the bit they've missed - they're always profoundly sceptical if a bank goes doo-lally promising them altogether too much human stuff.