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Emma Simon: Wonga film raises serious questions

The new Wonga film shows financial companies are getting more sophisticated in their attempts to target consumers.

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So Wonga, the controversial payday lender, has made a film purporting to tell the stories of 12 ‘typical’ customers.

It made me wonder what other financially inspired films could be hitting a cineplex near you soon. In the pensions arena The Good, the Bad and the Ugly  springs to mind, but perhaps I should refrain from suggesting which providers could fill these title roles.

Feel free to add any better suggestions below.

But whatever you think of payday lenders – and my opinion certainly isn’t high – this film does raise more serious questions about how financial companies now market their products.

The West End “premiere” of this film – made by a Bafta-nominated filmmaker – was paid for by Wonga, as will be its screening on Channel Four before Christmas, in what is basically an extended advertising slot.

With the complete erosion of financial advice in the mass market, financial companies are relying more and more on that unholy trinity of advertising, marketing and PR if they want to get their products in front of consumers. All appear to have got more sophisticated, and more expensive, in recent years.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to switch on the TV during daytime hours will find the programmes punctuated by a non-stop stream of financial ads.
If they reflect the lifestyle of the typical viewer then I guess they’re either getting a loan to pay for a car, insuring the car, getting a payday loan to help cover their loan repayments, or trying to reclaim PPI insurance that was no doubt sold alongside one of these loans. I can only assume the various applications forms are completed with the free pen they got when buying a funeral plan.

It is relentless, but does this bombardment work? This is harder to judge. On the one hand you could argue that the huge amount of money companies like Wonga have splurged on advertising has no doubt helped them to lend a staggering £84.5m in 2012 – an increase of 35 per cent in just a year.

But while its quirky ads may have made its name more familiar than the likes of NowPayDay or WizzCash, there are other forces at work.

Banks and credit card providers taking a more prudent approach to lending has allowed all these companies to flourish, as has the rather lax regulatory regime. There seems something horribly awry when more checks are needed to open a bog-standard saving account than to apply for a loan by text. And all this has come about under a Government that promised to encourage and restart the savings habit.

But this Wonga film also marks a new direction in corporate advertising, that we are seeing more and more. Often, with the help of social media, PR campaigns, product placement and some spurious “independent” research, we see brand messages reaching beyond the usual confines of the advertising slot, be it on screen or on the page.

Consumers need to be on their toes to spot what is essentially paid for advertising dressed up in rather more sophisticated clothes.

How can advisers compete? Not many companies have the marketing spends of the likes of Wonga but it would be good to see individual companies, or even trade bodies try to counter the prevailing message of spend now, borrow more and buy the financial products with the catchiest jingles, regardless of whether it offers  appropriate cover.

Last year we did see Aviva taking steps to raise the profile of protection insurance, through its sponsorship of  Downton Abbey. Although it did receive some flak for this campaign, I think it was a decent stab at trying to show that real benefits of certain financial products.

If the savings and investment industry is going to prosper it needs advisers to explain the complexities that aren’t easily conveyed in a three-minute advertisement. And it also needs to find more creative ways to communicate the benefit of saving to a far wider audience, including the Wonga-generation.

Emma Simon is a freelance journalist

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