Banks are banking that their ads will regain your trust

A few weeks ago, the manager at my bank disappeared, replaced by a perky young woman who has mastered the concept of customer service. When I sidle up to the counter to deposit a check, she knows my name and seems very concerned that I'm getting the banking service I need.

She may be too good, or perhaps I've grown to be too accustomed to being ignored and under-appreciated because I've found her cheerfulness almost disconcerting. In any case, I can't help but wonder if she is part of the trend that The New York Times wrote about Monday, in which they noted that banks' advertisements are turning warmer and cozier.
As the article says, at least three banks have come on the scene -- Ally Bank, A.I.U. and Redneck Bank -- but these three new banks aren't new at all. Ally Bank is the new name for GMAC Bank. A.I.U. was A.I.G. And Redneck Bank (their slogan: "Where bankin's funner") used to be the stodgier sounding Bank of the Wichitas. The idea, of course, is that banks are hoping that Americans will forgive and forget and start thinking more kindly about banks.

I'm betting it'll work to a point. Americans as a group have a short memory. For instance, consider Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York, sees his career melt due to his involvement in a prostitution ring and then a year later is well-received as an columnist in Slate and occasionally penning op-eds in The Washington Post.

Or think of Don Imus and his comment that killed his career at CBS Radio and NBC News -- and then soon found a new syndication deal that allowed him to continue doing his morning radio show. Or look at... uh... well, I know there are many more examples, but due to the short memory I mentioned that we all have, I can't remember what they are.

Still, while celebrities can generally withstand a few scandals and then emerge as an underdog, the banking mess -- with its massive, punishing overdraft fees and the jacking up of interest rates on loans -- is a bit more personal, and I think it's going to take a long time before people truly feel that their bank really is their ally, despite what Ally (formerly GMAC) Bank wants you to believe.

As Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America's Dream Palace, told the Times, the banking industry didn't really regain America's trust for another 20 years after the Great Depression. "The anger," said Fraser, "turned to skepticism and a certain caution. And it lasted for decades."

I can see the same thing happening, at least with my own mindset. I appreciate that my new bank manager knows me and seems to actually care that I'm having a pleasant experience while I'm there, and I realize that most of the people who work at the bank probably are as frustrated by what's happened in the financial sector as their customers. It's the institutions and the way of doing business rather than the people who work in them, that has me feeling uneasy.

And thus, I also know that a few ads and friendly tellers doesn't whitewash the fact that my bank would love to squeeze every existing dollar from my account into their coffers. And I know that I'd feel a lot warm and cozier toward my bank if instead of creating the appearance that they're just a giant teddy bear with the keys to a bank vault, they actually tried to improve their infrastructure so that I'd be less likely to make a mistake when calculating the balance in my checking account.

For instance, when I pay a $200 bill to a utility company through my bank Web site, it seems like it would be easy enough for my bank's Web site to automatically subtract that money from my available balance. They don't do that, so -- just like with a paper checkbook -- I have to remember to account for that check when I look at my available balance.

Fine, I'm a grown up, not a problem. I can (usually) keep track of my money. Still, when the staff just smiles and the banks don't actually take seemingly easy steps to make the banking experience smoother for customers, it doesn't make me feel warmer and cozier. I just keep thinking that the new cheerful, smiling bank manager who appears to have my back is actually studying it -- looking for the most effective place to stick the knife.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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