A bank advertising war is brewing in Boston, and Fleet Financial Group is in the hot seat.
Boston-based USTrust dusted off an eight-year-old television campaign spoofing big banks to take a shot at the recently announced Fleet-Shawmut National Corp. merger.
The 30-second advertisement portrays two flabby bankers sitting on a bench, giving a small business loan customer the runaround while a background voice touts the advantage of dealing with much smaller USTrust, the subsidiary of $1.8 billion-asset UST Corp.
The three-week campaign, which ran from Feb. 27 to March 19, signals an effort by smaller banks to entice customers away from the merging companies.
"It was something we pulled out of a drawer," said Norman Gorin, USTrust senior vice president of marketing. "It was just so appropriate with the recent events. We just thought that what was true in 1987 is still true today."
The ads began running days after the announcement of the $3.3 billion megamerger, which will create the nation's ninth-largest bank.
In the ad, two "rather heavy-set fellows" sit side by side, handing a piece of paper back and forth while a bewildered loan customer waits, Mr. Gorin said. The camera then pans to show the portly bankers with their backs to the viewer, virtually bursting out of their suits.
A voice asks, "Now that the big banks of Boston have put their heads together, gone shoulder to shoulder, merged their vast financial structures, and grown their customer base, and now that they have twice the assets, will they sit on your loan twice as long?"
As the bench cracks under their weight, "you see these two wiggling, rather large bottoms," Mr. Gorin said. And the voice says, "USTrust. We're not your average billion-dollar bank."
The ad was broadcast on Boston's three network affiliates during the morning, evening, and late-night news programs.
"Bank advertising does not have to be dull," Mr. Gorin said. "It has to compete with a lot of other distractions for attention, and if it can be entertaining and pointed for someone with a budget that's dramatically smaller than the other banks in town, it's a successful way to raise awareness."
Fleet spokesman Thomas L. Lavelle said the USTrust campaign "doesn't pertain to the way we conduct our business."
"Contrary to what certain competitors might say, we know that size doesn't at all prohibit sensitivity or responsiveness," he said.
The ad campaign was originally developed by USTrust and Mullen Advertising in 1987 in response to the active acquisition streak of Bank of New England, which failed in 1991.
Jay M. Burke, president of Jay Burke & Associates, a community bank advertising agency in Hyde Park, Mass., praised USTrust for showing that it's not necessary to come up with a new campaign for every situation.
"They were smart enough to bring back something that was very memorable," he said. "(The commercials) add humor, but the humor fits the situation perfectly. It's not a case where the advertising is forced to fit the humor. It just works, visually as well as factually."
The ads will also serve as a discussion point for USTrust representatives when they call potential customers to solicit business, he said.
"The physical appearance of the people suggests greed and self- indulgence, which is how many of the small businesses throughout the greater Boston area perceive the big regionals already," he said.
The advertising campaign is USTrust's latest effort to shore up its small business market share after several years of struggling with nonperforming assets and negative press coverage, said Jeffrey Cohn, bank analyst at H.C. Wainwright in Boston.
Bad assets have been significantly reduced since regulators forced a management change in 1993, but the bank still has a large pool of problem loans, Mr. Cohn said.
Mr. Gorin noted that large mergers often make customers change banks, and "we hope that this ad will prompt them to consider us."