It’s an artistic response for a company centred on finance – commissioning a half-hour film of “real stories”, tickling our emotions.
Yesterday MPs, whether out of moral feeling or political necessity, grilled the company behind the flick – payday lender, Wonga. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee largely condemned its practices - not long after its feature premiered in London and was released on YouTube.
The session couldn’t have come soon enough, with the nation continuing to struggle to buy things like food, water and warmth – and a reported 40,000 members of the public are thrust into “real pain,” by being lent by the firm money they can’t pay back.
It was disconcerting then to learn of Wonga’s apparent PR ploy to convey its heartfelt and noble offerings. In the flick, which was created by BAFTA Award-winning Gary Tarn, we see 12 tales of people we are told are real borrowers who happily used the service and everything was fine. Someone at the screening is said to have asked whether it is simply “artfully-produced propaganda.” It certainly seems that way – however well-made or moving it may be, behind 12 Portraits is surely a corporate agenda.
Niall Wass claims the picture represents the “silent majority”. Wonga’s chief operating officer said the company is misrepresented. “What we felt was that the voice of the silent majority was not being heard, but there were perceptions out there that weren't justified,” he explained. On Newsnight earlier this week he said 99 per cent of its one million UK customers are happy.
But despite these tales of monetary triumph, the fact remains that Wonga appears to otherwise prey on the vulnerable in desperate times. To me, it looks as though every tale of deliverance is met with more of hardship and misery.
MP Stella Creasey looks to feel the same: “Wonga may be able to find 12 people to say they are happy customers, but I can find 1,200 who are paying the price for borrowing from these legal loan sharks.” Granting £400 loans within five minutes and tooled up with interest rates of up to 5853 per cent APR, this is hardly surprising.
The film made with creativity and flair and has been described as ‘modern, authentic and relevant,’ but Wonga cannot hide its realities behind a romantic façade of sensible debt or church-like provision.
It’s right then that MPs sat Wonga down. While the likes of Mr Wass feel the company is just and beneficial, genuinely seeming to believe it’s commendable above all, members of parliament think it hurts the financially troubled far more than it heals them. Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi talked of “extortionate” rates, putting families into “real pain” and generally being “rapturous”. Ed Miliband also denounced the firm, suggesting it symbolised the “squeeze on living standards”, was creating a “quiet crisis” and noted seven out of 10 people who use payday lenders regret doing so.
This last piece of data is the most alarming given Wonga’s recent portrayal of people who are all very content with their experiences indeed. Is Wonga simply trying to deflect accusations and whitewash its true colours? It’s spent probably a rather large sum – with a marketing budget I hardly imagine to be small – on an emotional journey of flowers, countryside motorbike rides and self-improvement. It really does attempt to pull at our senses, strewn with sepia, calming music and gazing contemplation.
But how does the 28-minute showing stand up when thousands of others had such contrasting times with payday lenders. In a film highlighting the other side of debt, happiness, progression and prosperity would be replaced with alleged “bullying” when repayments aren’t met.
I wonder if anyone will produce a film of 12 people who’ve had contrasting times – showing the darker side of borrowing from the likes of Wonga?