Deconstructing Wealthsimple’s Investing for Humans video

If I asked you to describe a typical bank or investment ad you might point to something like this. Unimaginative. Plastic. Disingenuous. The communication equivalent of a stale, muffled fart.

Unfortunately for consumers (or anyone with functioning senses, really) this type of ad is standard fare. Mercifully, there are outliers:

For the uninitiated, this ad was created by legendary director Errol Morris. It’s part of a larger campaign called Investing for humans by Canadian robo-advisor Wealthsimple.

When I first watched the Investing for humans spot I was engrossed. The cocktail of human experience on display defied my expectations around financial services marketing. Clearly this is no accident. Gone are the smarmy characters, sentimental story lines and lives without hardship. In their place we’re served real human stories in a very tightly arranged (and well art directed) package.

Given its brilliance I decided to deconstruct the spot to try and understand why it’s so captivating.

Our relationship with money

The first thing I noticed is at no point in the spot does Morris talk about the service itself, the benefits to the customer or how it compares with other investing platforms. The entire piece focuses on personal relationships with money.

When I isolate the statements made by individuals in the spot, the story arch looks something like this:

  1. Feelings about money
  2. Perceptions on investing and recent traumas
  3. Doing nothing isn’t an option
  4. Investing is complicated, but you can do it

1. Feelings about money

The first 40 seconds establishes a state of vulnerability and general anxiety when it comes to people and money. The negatives are associated with powerful emotions like fear, helplessness and boredom, and outnumber the positives, which are characterized through individual actions (e.g., clipping coupons). Specifics mentioned by the various interviewees:

How we feel about money (negatives)

  • I don’t like talking about it — it’s taboo
  • It’s boring
  • I fret about money but do nothing to fix the problem
  • I don’t want to spend much time thinking about it
  • I feel ignorant when it comes to dealing with money

How we feel about money (positives)

  • I like money — I hide it around the house
  • I like saving money (clipping coupons)

Through this mix of negative and positive individual stories, the viewer is left feeling empathetic because:

  • We too find money: boring, complex, anxiety inducing and isolating.
  • These are real people revealing thoughts and feelings that expose them to potential shame or embarrassment. Nobody wants to admit they’re bad with money. Most of us desperately want to appear completely in control of our financial lives. Any suggestion otherwise risks damage to our ego and pride.

This recognition of shared experience simultaneously endears the individuals in the spot to us and spikes our curiosity. This is where Morris dangles the bait and sets the hook. If you’ve ever been curious about improving your financial station in life or better managing your savings, he’s likely got you at this point. Now that he has our attention, we turn to…

2. Perceptions on investing and recent traumas

Here the spot transitions from the idea of money to the world of investing (and the first hint of Wealthsimple’s product offering). These scenes appear targeted primarily to millennials, with oblique references to their parents and the 2007–2008 financial crisis. At first sniff, conjuring recent traumas like the collapse of global financial markets seems counter productive in an ad designed to convince people to invest in stocks and bonds. This is where risk-averse brands would likely avoid all mention of past failures or potential downsides. But Investing for humans is predicated on honesty and reality. Investing is risky. The financial crisis left its mark on a generation and to disregard it would undermine the integrity of the story.

So where does that leave us? The spot has covered the complex and somewhat uneasy relationship people have with money. Beyond that, it’s raised the specter of investing; an activity that’s steeped in mystery and if history is to be believed, has the potential ruin us.

What are we to do?

3. Doing nothing isn’t an option

Next, we transition to the ad’s emotional apex.

These two scenes are my favourite in the entire spot. A little girl — the only child in the piece — now appears on screen. She makes a seemingly benign, but obvious statement: ‘If I don’t save, I won’t have that much money when I grow up.

We now cut to a shot of a woman wiping tears from her eyes. There’s no talking, no explanation of why she’s crying. Just a person, disturbed by some past trauma. Interpretation of the moment is left entirely up to you, the viewer. The juxtaposition of childhood innocence and the difficulties of adulthood is for me, unignorable.

I love this scene for 2 reasons:

  1. It focuses our attention on the idea that you can’t just stick your head in the sand and hope your financial future will sort itself out. Even a child knows that you have to save and plan so you can (hopefully) enjoy some degree of financial stability later in life. The use of the little girl is a very effective device in achieving this focus. She immediately stands out as the lone child in the spot (humans are programmed to focus on things that stand out from a crowd; in this case, a child amongst adults).
  2. It very delicately turns the page in the spot’s narrative from ‘Investing is boring, scary, etc’ to ‘ok, let’s do something about the situation’. It prepares us for the next chapter in the story…

4. It’s complicated, but you can do it

The truth is that investing is complicated. This idea is expressed by an older guy (‘It’s extraordinarily complicated’) and Errol Morris himself (‘I think that’s one of the inherent problems with money’).

I interpret the admission that investing is ‘complicated’ by two older adults (one of which is a revered filmmaker) as a subtle way of relieving millennials guilt around not having their financial houses in order. A sort of ‘look, older people don’t have any idea what’s going on either — don’t feel so bad about your lack of progress’.

Let’s take inventory of where we’re at in the journey so far:

  1. We have mixed feelings about money
  2. Investing is a mostly foreign, possibly scary concept
  3. Despite that, we have to consider investing so we’re not eating cat food in our golden years
  4. Investing is complicated buuuuuuut WealthSimple has good news…

The spot now segues to a sequenced retrospective of the various personalities in the piece, then a title card with the campaign slogan Investing for Humans.

It ends with the call to arms:

“If people we’re talking more openly about money… it would be better. Right?”

Essentially: Talking about money shouldn’t make us feel shame. It’s a universal concern, and by openly addressing it our lives will improve (and while you’re at it, use Wealthsimple for investing that money, k?).

So there you have it. In approximately 90 seconds, Morris took us on an emotional, relatable journey about money and investing. He did it in a novel, approachable way that entirely sidestepped the conventional formulas used in financial advertising and marketing (praise the lord for that).

So did it work?

Well, it currently has 1.8 million views on YouTube 3 months after it was published. Oh, and the top comment on YouTube is this:

What do you think?


Originally published at theframerate.com on November 24, 2017.

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