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Singing the Praises of the Beautiful Banks

The Co-operative bank has had various scandals in recent years, financial and otherwise. The Co-op 'brand' has decided it needs to clean up its image. The result is a current television advertising campaign which is as preposterous as it is insulting to our intelligence. The television ads are voiced by Russell Brand’s former radio show on-air commentator, George The Poet, who utters ponderous platitudes as if these capitalist high-street banks and supermarkets were some kind of socialist utopia. In fact, of course, today’s Co-op bears hardly even a trace of the idealism of the Rochdale Pioneers of 1844. Like the John Lewis Partnership, it has long succumbed to the pressure to act just like any other profit-hungry, hierarchical corporation within a capitalist world.

In 2016 a total of £16 million was allocated nationally by the Co-op to community projects and 'good causes', out of a group turnover of £7.1 billion. Just three of their bank directors (Niall Booker, Liam Coleman and John Baines) that year shared an income of £4 million, a quarter of the entire national community causes budget. So when George The Poet intones 'let’s work together and strive for unity' as 'great things happen when we work together', it is an utter sham. Likewise, when he asks, 'What if communities got a share of the profits? What if everyone could win from this?' he neglects to mention that last year the share handed to 'the community' (in lieu of tax) was only 2p out of every £10.

The recruitment of artistic talent to sell such messages has become the holy grail of companies, and it was a great coup that they had this film directed by one of our greatest living film makers, Shane Meadows (This is England, Dead Man’s Shoes, Somers Town, A Room for Romeo Brass), well known for his working-class realism and affinity. Rather than carp from the sidelines, however, we can rely on the self-description from the horse’s mouth, as it were. The director of the Co-op brand, Helen Carroll, has praised the style of this new campaign, as it 'doesn’t feel like advertising at all. It shows the power of community'.

In using that power to sell products and make millions for people like Niall Booker and Liam Coleman, the Co-op has shamelessly copied a series of adverts run shortly before by a rival bank, also with false pretensions to being less bank-like than other banks, the Nationwide. Those ads featured a whole range of 'cool' and popular young performance poets, telling us through their rhyming sermons that Nationwide is another bank devoted to sharing, caring, community, responsibility and fairness. But try going to either of these banks if you have just been made redundant and can no longer pay your mortgage or rent. Ask them to show a bit of community spirit by covering it for you for a couple of years. Let us know their response.

All of those poets were either incredibly stupid and gullible, or ambitious and easily bought. The Nationwide, like the Co-op Bank, is a capitalist institution, committed to invest in order to accumulate surpluses. It stands right at the heart of the most exploitative system ever to curse the human species. Is this what music and lyrics are for, to praise banks? If only these artists had possessed one tenth of the decency and principle of Ricky Gervais, who once turned down a million pounds rather than advertise something he found tacky and undesirable – and that was at a time when he was not yet wealthy himself. What those cheap, venal sell-outs bought into was the modern trend in which capitalist corporations do not advertise the products they are selling, but rather their proclaimed decency and high moral values. Of course, they protest too much. The people and organisations who really devote themselves to caring about people and working for the community do not need to spend millions of advertising dollars insisting how nice they really are.

CLIFFORD SLAPPER