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Nic Cicutti: Industry’s marketing messages are stuck firmly in the past

There is an impression of unconscious bias, with images still reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes

What was your first ever experience of the financial services industry? I found myself thinking about this last week, after reading Technology & Technical managing director Kim North’s powerful Money Marketing column on gender inequality.

My own memory goes back to 1980. I opened the door at the nursing accommodation where I was living and let a young chap, no more than 20 years old, into the communal lounge. He spent the next 30 minutes trying to persuade me to buy an investment product, about which he probably knew even less than I did.

A few minutes into his presentation, I recognised the lad: he was on the periphery of our scooter club in Colchester and we called him Messy, after one of the Mr Men characters, because when he first turned up he was a bit dirty and smelly.

Long after Messy cleaned up and became more presentable, the name stuck sadly.

Kim North: Why do white males still dominate marketing campaigns?

I do not remember the precise product or the company Messy represented.

I do, however, recall him using a script and showing me some graphs on a printed brochure, which he would hand to me and then take back into safekeeping, as if I could not be trusted to hold on to them.

Messy did not make a sale that day. After a while, we stopped talking finance and switched to his Lambretta GP200, about which he was far more knowledgeable.

Despite his lack of success, what still strikes me about Messy back then was his willingness to put himself in a position where he would knock on random doors (he hadn’t known I would be the one opening it that time) and his outwardly confident demeanour when talking to me. North’s column made me think: would a young woman ever have done something quite as bonkers as that? Somehow, I doubt it. Men, far more than women, are primed at an early age to be assertive, even when they haven’t got a clue. Women, in contrast, are socialised from childhood into different forms of behaviour and are generally more reflective and insightful as a result.

Financial marketing both reflects these roles and reinforces them. In her column, North writes about the need for greater diversity in the financial services industry, as well as the need for more gender-inclusive marketing.

She points out that marketing of financial products and services is heavily male-oriented, “with themes like jousting and shooting, and showing all-white male, ageing fund managers”.

She argues there is a need “to modernise UK financial services and shake off the white male dominance in marketing campaigns”.

I agree. For too long, much of the financial services marketing literature has been male-focused.

It is less overt today than it used to be: I still remember personal pension brochures from the 90s showing pictures of sleek silver-haired men at the wheel of old sports cars, complete with female spouse in the passenger seat.

Today’s imagery is subtler, although occasional howlers still creep in.

Witness the picture of the young, confident male adviser on the Barclays website, imparting the benefit of his knowledge and experience to the couple clutching hands on the sofa opposite him.

Profile: Parsonage Financial Services boss on not letting gender be a barrier to success

NatWest makes use of both females and members of ethnic minorities in its online marketing, although I was intrigued by the juxtaposition on the same webpage of two images.

One is of a father, in his 30s, helping his son climb a rocky outcrop in the countryside. The other is of a young black woman sitting on a sofa and trying on a pair of suede boots.

Elsewhere, a white mother is busy in the kitchen, showing her young son the contents of her food mixer, a tray of cakes in the foreground. And before anyone asks, I don’t think she is giving him a baking lesson.

Yes, there is a picture of a mother at the top of a mountain, with her child sitting at her side. But dad is sitting behind them, pointing at something in the distance, which they are looking at together. The mother and daughter’s role is passive (they look); his is active (he points).

I do think some of that is changing. Aviva’s marketing literature uses more naturalistic images in a gender-neutral way, while Scottish Widows’ Pensions Basics campaign uses as many women as men in its website FAQs.

But the overall impression is of an unconscious bias, with images still used to reinforce gender stereotypes of passive women and active men. North is right: it has to stop.

As for Messy, what happened to him? Well, he didn’t last long in the industry. A few months later, he found work in a large retail bakery chain and stayed there happily for many years.

When I spoke to him at a club reunion about 15 years back, he confessed to not having had a clue about what he was trying to sell me. Bless. And his name is not Messy any more; it’s Peter.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at



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There are 2 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. In principle I agree with some of your points, but I do think you are stereotyping men. I and I know many others wouldn’t have dreamt of banging on the door of a stranger. Women didn’t do it in those days for two reasons – it wasn’t ladylike and there were so few women in those positions.

    However you are absolutely spot on what you criticise providers and their woebegone marketing efforts. Basically what they try and do is to wind up advisers and get them going to flog their products. Unfortunately far too many swallow the blurb whole, which is always wrapped around with inducements of one sort or another. Witness the fact that drawdown is practically the default decumulation choice (or so one would believe when engaging with providers). The inducement here is the continuing income stream that is not available with an annuity – which is often far more suitable.

    The second illustration of this is what I consider to be the biggest rip off in financial services – equity release. The TV advertising practically makes me puke (you don’t have to repay until you die or go into a home). The incentive is that huge amounts of commission is still the default remuneration.

  2. Completely agree Nic that there is far too much stereotyping and unconscious bias in financial advertising, and indeed sales literature too. Whilst there has been some progress, there remains disproportionate focus on the nuclear family, male breadwinners and homeowners, when we should be producing messages that appeal to all types of households who have insurance and other financial needs; single parent house-holds, step/blended families, gay couples, single renters etc. Our imagery and messaging should better represent the society we serve to encourage not just more women to become more financially resilient, but other under-served consumer groups too.

    Many of us are trying to address this through the CII’s Insuring Women’s Futures Programme and the Women in Protection Network, and other initiatives to improve diversity and financial awareness. Thank you for writing this piece.

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