Like many small outfits, James Monroe Bank in Arlington, Va., likes to boast that it gives better service than big banks do. But with only a modest advertising budget, it counted mostly on word of mouth to spread the message.

Not anymore. For several months now, commercials on local cable TV have trumpeted James Monroe as "the last real bank."

Furthermore, the $80 million-asset bank paid less than $6,000 for its five commercials - which are every bit as slick as First Union's or Bank of America's.

The secret? Ready-made ads.

"We've talked with other banks and they tell us, 'We can't believe you have this,' " said executive vice president Richard Linhart. "The bottom line is that we don't have $20,000 to $30,000 a month to spend on advertising, and these spots are bringing us the kind of image and clients that we want."

The campaign was produced by Impact Productions, a Tulsa, Okla., agency that for 18 months has been marketing ready-made television commercials to community banks with shoestring marketing budgets.

Impact, a division of Mpower Inc. of Tulsa, will sell the spots to only one bank in a given geographic market, so that there is no confusion about which local one is "the last real bank."

About 25 community banks nationwide are using Impact's campaign, which takes direct aim at large, seemingly impersonal banks. They pay $5,895 for the ads and the rights to run them for one year, and can renew for a second year for $1,965.

In a "cyber teller" spot a customer says, "I'm concerned about the level of personal service I've been receiving."

The teller - her image vanishing while the time allotted to the customer runs out - responds: "Personal service? I'm not sure what you mean?"

The customer, charged $3.50, walks away in disgust. The voiceover says, "If this isn't your idea of a good banking relationship, maybe you should try … ."

Another ad features a latex-gloved hand taking a business loan application before it is turned down. In another, a motorist attempting to transfer funds between accounts by phone pushes the wrong button and detonates a nuclear bomb.

"Typically, most bank advertising is boring," Mr. Linhart said. "People are so concerned about presenting a staid and secure image. They can't seem to break out of that mold, but these ads do that."

"These ads are a lot more professional than what one would expect to see from a community bank," added Johnna Shirley, vice president of marketing at $79 million-asset Mutual Savings Bank in Hartsville, S.C. "We wouldn't have been able to afford these if we had tried to put them together ourselves."

Despite these testimonials, the majority of bankers who have seen the ads have declined to buy them, said Joe Merchon, executive director of Mpower. Since launching this program in 1999, the firm has contacted over 2,000 community banks and mailed out roughly 1,000 videos to those expressing an interest in seeing the spots.

Mr. Merchon attributes the lack of interest to the poor experience small banks generally have had with TV and cable advertising, the high cost of using network television, and the poor production quality of most cable advertising.

He said it is not unusual for banks and other advertisers to be quoted process as high as $50,000 to produce a single ad for network television - not including what it costs to purchase air time. "Or they have gone to a cable company itself which will produce a spot for them for anywhere from $500 to $2,000 each. Unfortunately, they get a local [film] team that comes out and shoots crappy video stuff."

Then there are cable channels themselves. While many are network-quality, others - especially local channels - have a decidedly low-budget look. There is a perception, Mr. Linhart acknowledged, that the customers community banks want are not watching many of the channels on which small banks can afford to advertise.

Of course, the advantage to cable advertising is cost. James Monroe, which advertises on seven cable channels, including ESPN and CNN, pays $8 to $12 per half-minute spot. A prime-time spot on network television can cost hundreds or even thousands times that.

John R. Maxwell, James Monroe's president and chief executive officer, said a number of banks in his area turned the campaign down before he bought exclusive rights. And he is glad they did.

"With these ads, we're getting our customers pumped up and selling us," he said. "Our existing customers are excited. These ads say to them, 'My bank's putting together a class act.' We're looking for business referrals and that's what we're getting."

Mr. Quinn is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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