Commonwealth Bank and the can’t imperative

A new bank advertising campaign is manna from heaven for bloggers. I tried to resist joining the fray, but then a friend asked me last week what I thought of the new Commonwealth Bank campaign and I realised it would be seriously remiss of me to look such a generous gift horse in the mouth.

Where to begin…

I’ll leave out my planned swipes at the Dr Seuss-inspired content of the TV ads and simply recommend that everyone pick up a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go – a genuinely feel good ditty by the master of rhyme and verse (without the commercial overlay).

The real question for me is why would anyone want to frame their campaign with a negative? Oh I know the intent is for the word “can” to be the driver here, but unfortunately when you mention an elephant it’s hard to see anything but big grey pachyderms. In other words, “can’t” rules the day (and judging by the comments section of many of the articles I’ve read about the campaign, I’m not the only one who thinks so).

But I guess in a weird, and I’m sure unplanned, way, I should give points for making a promise they could keep – if only they had stopped at “can’t”!

Like the NAB and ANZ before them with their “Breaking up with the other banks” and “We live in your world” campaigns, Commonwealth Bank (or is it CommBank now? I get confused) seems driven to garner hype and buzz, and will likely measure the success of this campaign along those lines. The ability to deliver on that hype relegated to poor relation status.

The sentiment of many comments I read was neatly summed up by this person on a Mumbrella article:

“Loving the Commonwealth Bank’s new ‘can’t‘ campaign. In fact, that was their exact response to my request for bridging finance a while ago. can’t.”

And even if you get past the “can’t” and remove that “pesky little letter” to reveal the all empowering “can”, the problems continue. Because while we “can” is a lovely idea it has a flip side that is just as much a set up as “can’t”.

We can – raise your interest rates; deny your home loan; charge you lots of fees; make it hard to understand the terms of your credit card; charge you late fees; earn huge profits; make workers redundant; offshore our customer call centres… the list goes on and on.

The lesson here for SMEs is to make promises you can keep and then keep them. Marketing and advertising are great tools to inform customers and capture their interest in whatever you happen to be selling or promoting. However, when buzz becomes the goal, the casualty is the ability to actually do what you say you will – and, once on that road, it’s just a quick downhill ride to cynical and unhappy customerville.

As a good friend of mine once said about contracts, you can have one that covers everything, but if you want it to be simple and clear as well, that takes extra time. The same can be said about advertising and marketing.

It is relatively easy to produce hype, buzz and spin. It’s easy to make a promise without thinking about consequences. What is hard, what requires discipline and a good solid awareness of where your value lies, is a campaign that inspires AND can be kept.

The poetic prose of the Commonwealth Bank ad is all fine, well and good and yay to the copywriter who dreamt it up. It’s easy to get wrapped up in a cool idea. But once the ad guys leave the room; once the billboards and TV ads are produced; once Toni Collette is back to making movies in the US; once the sizzle is done; what’s left is they’ve got to do what they promised.

And therein lies the problem – they “can’t”.

See you next week.

Michel is an independent adviser and advocate dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at You can follow Michel on Twitter: @michelhogan


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