First Union bank has frightening fit of peak

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Advertiser: First Union
Agency: Publicis & Riney, San Francisco
Ad Review rating: One star

Meet First Union, the bank from hell.

Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco, introduces this merger-created colossus in two extraordinarily gothic commercials by Industrial Light & Magic. The director is a guy named Steve Beck, but the sensibility is right out of Tim Burton's "Batman."

"This is a world only a few know well, a world of risk and uncertainty, where the roads can take you to success or prosperity--or sometimes, to no place at all. This is the financial world."

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The voice is Hal Riney himself. This is, however, no typical Riney softshoe. It is a hard, dark, deeply disturbing vision of the financial landscape: a dusky city illuminated like a carnival midway by garish neon and a population of grotesques. Fire-breathers. Fortune-tellers. Painted-faced freaks. Anxious customers grasping but never reaching. When one of them falls to the ground, his face shatters into shards.

"For decades," Riney continues, "banks and investment firms of mountainous size have ruled the land. Yet high above the horizon, another mountain has risen--a mountain called First Union, with 16 million customers, the nation's eighth-largest brokerage and sixth-largest bank."

Here a towering glass First Union edifice erupts, like an instantaneous geological outcropping, leaving all of the city in its imposing shadow.

"For a new perspective of the financial world," Riney offers, "come to a mountain called First Union. Or, if you prefer, the mountain will come to you."

No, no. Please. Not necessary. Stay right where you are.

For years banks have been telling us they're the good friends and neighbors next door, which, of course, is nonsense. But so is positioning yourself as the Prince of Financial Darkness. First Union's bizarre, unearthly debut would be suicidal--except for the fact that the ridiculously extravagant, effects-laden "television event" will scarcely be noticed at all.

For starters, having come to expect special effects, viewers are now inured to them. And when we are wowed, it is not because digital wizardry has been exploited to create fantastic images; it is rather because it has been harnessed to approximate reality.

"Titanic," for example, was intriguing because it looked so true-to-life. We gasped not because the effects were apparent, but because they were so amazingly invisible. But even if we were all champing for 60-second movie magic, these commercials still don't deliver, because of the limitations of television itself.

What the large screen brings to life, the TV suffocates. The small screen doesn't merely confine the images; it diminishes them. The action, the details, the scope, the intensity, the viewers' basic ability to register all of the visual elements arrayed before them--all of that is lost in (a 19-inch, diagonally measured) space.

Again, luckily for First Union.

A surreal oppressive landscape in the shadow of a looming corporate monolith . . . hmmm . . . isn't that more or less everything the public fears and loathes in financial institutions? Granted, the First Union "mountain" somewhat recalls Prudential's Rock of Gibraltar. But the Rock is synonymous with stability and permanence--not arrogance, distance, cold indifference or excessive accumulation of wealth, influence and power. In service of its stated goal to quickly become a household name, First Union has conjured every negative emotion imaginable.

Please note: Satan is a household name. It's just that nobody wants to do business with him.

Copyright October 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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