Does your money cross borders as easily as you do? That’s a question that HSBC, “the world’s local bank,” posed to would-be clients in a slogan that appeared on posters around the world a few years ago. The prompt accompanied a photograph of smiling Asian cyclists before the University of Cambridge. “When life takes you or your family across borders, your money should seamlessly follow,” reads the caption. “You’re at home abroad. Now the same can be said for your money.”
The irony enveloping this particular ad was delectable: the poster came out three or four years ago, just as several of HSBC’s branches were being scrutinized for helping people move their ill-gotten gains around a bit too easily. And recently, a series of recent leaks has further sealed the bank’s reputation as a hub of tax evasion, money laundering, and certain legal but morally dubious tax-avoidance practices.
These tendencies persist not because HSBC’s bankers are evil or wish to do wrong, but because evil is beyond everyone’s pay-grade, and the political will to regulate them lacks currency. (“Knowledge,” HSBC will have you know, “is the new currency.”) The company says it’s cleaning up its books, but HSBC’s branding remains astonishingly forthright. PR doesn’t seem to think corporate’s doing anything wrong; corporate wants PR to make it look good; so PR does what it knows and plasters its mercenary ideals about corporate cosmopolitanism in the world’s busiest transit hubs and business districts. The resulting campaigns tell us equal amounts about company and customer, call and response; one wonders if the not-so-subliminal messages and their loophole-exploiting subtext function as dog whistles for business-class passengers, who, in reading between the lines, finally feel ready “to live life without boundaries.”
HSBC’s “different values” ad series, familiar to world travelers from airports ranging from Kennedy to Kenyatta, epitomizes the amorality of the modern private sector. Identical images or pairs of images are accompanied by intuitive, counter-intuitive, and counter-counter-intuitive captions: an oriental rug, at once “décor,” “souvenir,” and “place of prayer”; a person with a bald head described alternately as “style,” “soldier,” and “survivor”; a baby labeled “love,” “legacy,” and (seriously) “expense.” The campaign deals in double-entendres and in oxymorons, in moral and cultural relativism (the mark of a truly global business: love thy client, regardless of his or her regional particularities).
The ad campaign lends itself all too well to culture jamming. Last year in Hong Kong, the concept was appropriated by pro-democracy activists, who mounted a mock “think twice” ad showing a woman in a gas mask with a yellow umbrella. “Patriot,” reads the first. “Traitor,” reads the second. The posters were promptly taken down.
If anything embodies the contradictions of late capitalism, it is the way that HSBC and companies like it choose to present themselves to the world. The question remains: do the seeds of their destruction linger between the lines of their ad copy? Or will they bloom into accepted and expensive platitudes, like reception-desk orchids?
In the future, prophesizes one of the bank’s more recent campaigns, “there will be no markets left waiting to emerge.”
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a member of the Dissent editorial board and an editor at Al Jazeera America and the New Inquiry.