A direct mail piece from U.S. Senate Federal Credit Union that features a buxom blonde has generated some angry reaction, some national media attention and a petition drive started by an offended member seeking an apology.
The “Got Big Plans?” campaign on the $563 million credit union’s website offers loans for various purposes, promising the Alexandria, Va., credit union–which has offices in the Senate Hart Office Building and the Government Accountability Office–stands ready to “help with all that life dishes out.”
“Preparing for any life change can be overwhelming…you have to live through it AND you have to figure out how to afford it…that’s where we come in. We can propose products and service to assist you with financing everything in life that costs money…within reason, of course,” states the overview of the Got Big Plans loan section on the website.
“Clearly, someone at the bank prefers things big. Really big. Women of the Hill can rejoice in knowing that the SFCU will ‘worry about the money’ while we’re busy worrying about our own self-image AND what sort of plastic surgery we should have to compensate for it,” blogger Meredith Shiner wrote in Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill section.
It continued, “We hear you, dude who came up with this ad and the dozens of people who must have signed off on it, and to you we say, ‘Hey, Senate Federal Credit Union, our eyes are up here!’”
According to James Robert Lay, founder at PTP New Media, there seemed to be a disconnect or confusion between the ad and the credit union’s brand.
“When you look at the website it’s kind of conservative, so there’s a mixed message with the ad. We believe in destroying the box and if you’re going to be bold and different, then do it with a purpose that ties into who you are,” said Lay. “Maybe it was a shock and awe campaign? I say in my presentations that it’s important not to take the middle of the road approach, and you want the reaction to be split into those who really love it or hate it. I think where the mixed messaging comes into play here is that it got your attention but confused the heck out of us because when you go to the website there isn’t any information on lifestyle loans. So maybe instead of leaving it to the imagination spell it out. What’s the loan product?”
Lifestyle loans have proved to be a boon for credit unions like Mountain America Credit Union, which teamed up with Lifestyle Lending Solutions LLC, to offer financing to cover the costs of services ranging from cosmetic surgery and adoption to weight loss and funeral expenses.
As for U.S. Senate FCU, negative reactions to the ad continued and a Web poster who identified herself as Amber W., a lifelong advocate of credit unions, launched a Women’s Rights petition against what she deemed a sexist mailing, asking the credit union to acknowledge its inappropriateness and make a public apology.
U.S. Senate FCU not only posted a formal apology on its website and emailed disapproving members, but also sent the following letter to the editor of Roll Call:
“We read with concern your commentaries dated May 29 and May 30 in ‘Heard on the Hill.’ It was never our intention to insult, demean or in any way offend any of our members. We have issued a personal apology to the membership of the United States Senate Federal Credit Union.”
“The comments and opinions of our members, on any issue, are very important, and we value their membership and support of the credit union. We are working diligently and constantly to keep their confidence in our leadership.”
While it did little to change Heard on the Hill’s perspective, the apology at least satisfied Amber W., who declared it a victory and shut the petition down despite garnering some 435 of the 500 signatures sought.
Bryce Roth, chief chatter yak at Chatter Yak!, a marketing CUSO in Sandusky, Ohio, said he hoped the national attention wouldn’t discourage other credit unions from being “unconventional” in their marketing and advertising initiatives.
“I applaud US Senate FCU for taking a unique approach to garnering attention, but perhaps it could have been dialed in a bit better,” said Roth. “Every industry known to man has utilized these tactics, why should it be any different for credit unions? I think their slant on this issue could have been less racy and perhaps avoided so much scrutiny if it were thought about more and executed in a different fashion. Perhaps utilizing the idea that ‘sex sells’ but doing so in a more subtle and humorous way. Not focusing on one aspect of a human's anatomy, but broadening the idea to apply both to men and women.”
Lay added that maybe the point was to get people talking and that even the backlash has still presented a unique opportunity.
“Given the buzz happening and the comments on the petition page and the Huffington Post, this is a perfect opportunity to be a social institution, that is what the human economy is all about,” Lay said. “Post a comment on the petition page, comment on the Huffington Post, do an op ed and play it up. Even if it was a mistake, take the opportunity to address it at the industry level and then directly to consumers. Take it head on. It’s a lesson for all credit unions to listen, learn and engage.”
“This is an opportunity for credit unions to capture the attention of so many individuals who are, for the most part unaware of what credit unions are let alone the benefits they have to offer,” said Roth. “This is a social economy, and word of mouth has always been the best way to get a genuine message out. P.T. Barnum is most often quoted as saying, ‘I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.’ In this case, I think P.T.'s words hold wisdom, but such a large campaign may have been executed on a smaller scale. Sure, the press is talking about the story, but have we provided fodder for others to misinterpret what credit unions are actually all about?”