Money Advice Service infuriates IFAs – and amazingly, they’re right

There are two interesting things about the new TV commercial for the Money Advice Service, which launched this week. You can see it here:

The first is the name. When it was invented, by Otto Thoresen in his report a few years ago, it was introduced to us under the working title Money Guidance. Then, in last year’s pilot, it was Moneymadeclear. Now it’s Money Advice.

Strictly speaking, the service is provided by something called CFEB, the Consumer Finance Education Body. But CFEB is in fact a recent spin-off of the FSA’s Financial Capability division, so it has the FSA’s fingerprints all over it. And the funny thing is that for over 20 years now it has been the FSA itself which has insisted with Jesuitical fanaticism that the word “advice” can only ever be used to define a very precise concept requiring a great deal of fact-finding about people’s circumstances and then the provision of recommendations which are fully tailored to their individual needs.

All of which Money Advice doesn’t do. The service has none of the characteristics which the FSA insists must constitute “advice.”

It’s true that this semantic issue will mean little or nothing to most consumers, who’ve never understood what the FSA means by “advice” anyway. But still, to hear the new service misuse the word so blatantly is genuinely shocking. Like hearing Germaine Greer start referring to women as “chicks”, or Trevor Phillips start calling ethnic minorities….well, you get the idea.

As you can also see via the weblink above, this “advice” issue has resulted in an outburst of exceptionally rabid outpourings from IFAs who are, almost literally, berserk with rage. It would be tempting to respond with the immortal words of Michael Winner (“Calm down dear, it’s only a commercial”), were it not for the second interesting point….

…which is the appearance of the protagonist in the commercial. The commercial is animated, so getting a sense of the chap isn’t completely straightforward, but as far as you can tell he is a middle-aged, middle class white male: and in pretty much all these respects, that makes him not the kind of person I thought Money Advice was supposed to be targeting.

As I’ve understood it, the whole thing about Money Advice is that it’s supposed to target the Other Lot – those who are not middle-aged, not middle class, not white and not male – leaving blokes like our protagonist to the tender mercies of the ravening IFAs. The almost-impossible trick that I thought Money Advice was in existence to try to pull off was to talk to young, poor people about long-term financial planning, and, by encouraging them to do some, to reduce the eventual burden that would fall on the State when young poor people become old poor people.

Showing an image of the prototypical target user of a financial service is always a dangerous and limiting thing to do in advertising, even when the image is able to project a precise sense of who that target user is. But in this case, the image seems worse than dangerous and limiting: it seems completely wrong and counter-productive, to the extent that when they see the advertising, the people who are in fact the prototypical target users won’t for a moment imagine that it’s intended primarily for them.

The lurking bear-trap in the whole Money Advice concept has always been that it’ll finish up spending a ton of money giving advice on the wrong subjects to the wrong people (especially the latter – the idea is not and has never been to offer free chats, coffee and biscuits to retired pensioners with large amounts of savings and too much time on their hands). The way the protagonist is presented in the commercial seems to me to give the whole project a big shove towards that bear trap.

Much as it grieves me to say so, I think IFAs are actually right to be pretty grumpy about this. The rest of us will have to settle for being mystified – except for a few cynics and sceptics, who may wonder whether, by deliberately recruiting the wrong user profile, those in charge are building a pretext for canning the whole thing in a year or two.

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