Landscapes of Global Capital
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Two of the most visually arresting of the First Union ads dwell on the atmosphere of capitalism at street level. These ads draw artistically on film references that include the neo-noir stylizations of Blade Runner and Brazil, as well as the classic cinema of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (note the diagonal lines of the buildings in some scenes) and Metropolis (the low angle, the dark side, the underworld as shaped by German expressionism). Each ad starts off in chaos and noise, in the densely filled clutter of an utterly and totally capitalist space. Here one encounters the risks of the street - a combination of a carnival atmosphere and unscrupulous greed. Here for example, a businessman falls and his head smashes like a piggybank, coins rolling out.

Here is the uncomfortable side of capitalism where everything is starkly for sale and no one can be trusted. Here is a landscape composed by a bewildering blizzard of signs - enticements, seductions, commands, and imperatives. Amidst these signs are nightmarish images drawn from the carnival - barkers shilling mutual funds, a clown's scary face; the money-go-round and the quest for the golden ring. In such a world there is big success or big failure.

This is a world only a few know well.
A world of risk and uncertainty.
Where the roads can take you to success and prosperity,
or sometimes to no place at all.
This is the financial world.
For decades banks and investment firms
of mountainous size have ruled the land.
Yet high above the horizon another mountain has risen.
A mountain called First Union with 16 million customers,
the nation's eighth largest brokerage & sixth largest bank.
For a new prospective of the financial world
come to the mountain called First Union
or if you prefer the mountain will come to you.


Lottoscape vs Virtuous Capital

The first half of the commercial constructs this dark side so that the solution - First Union - can be juxtaposed against it. The new "mountain" stands as the material representation of what Max Weber called "rational continuous capitalism." The landscape here is defined by the "horizon" and the "mountain." This is the simplest of semiotic correlations.In representing the landscape of the previous banking leviathan, the ad makes numerous visual allusions to Gambling. The imperatives to "Play" are suggestive of a Lotto universe, and the one-armed bandit that corresponds to the reference to "t-bills" offers an obvious metaphor for the thesis of "casino capitalism." This is a world where new financial instruments must be constantly proliferated to keep up the possibility of achieving profits - but the more arcane and elaborate these instruments become, the greater the speculative risk.

First Union02-99
First Union02-99
This semiotic contrast constructed by First Union poses the merry-go-round bull (with its connotations of bull market, golden calf/idolatry, brass ring) against the iconography of the First Union 'Mountain' pointing up to the 'one true God.'

At the carnival the lure is the quick buck and easy money, but you are usually taken for a ride. In this world of the barker, the hustlers, the con artists, the two-faced man, you can't feel secure or trust anyone. While Mikhail Bahktin wrote about the carnival as a place where people can go beyond everyday practices, rules and norms, these ads use the carnival to overexaggerate and stylize the everyday norms and practices of a capitalist society. This is a very different kind of carnival from Mardi Gras and Rio as ritual opportunities to shed sexual inhibitions. No, this is a different tradition of the carnival with roots in the excesses associated with the most crass commercialism. But there is also a sense in which the carnival imagery is cast in a way reminiscent of biblical stories -- the idolatry that creeps in while Moses is on the mount. And the moral tale is also reminiscent -- this carnival speaks to the excesses of praying to the Gods of Mammon, and bowing down to false gods and idols. The scenes of the carnival sideshow bull could be read as a reminder of what happens when Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God -- while below they are partying, engaged in drunken excess and praying to the golden calf. Darkness defines the images that begin each story spot in the advertising campaign. The carnival/midway scenes have a slightly lurid tint to them. Together with the rather hectic feeling of movement, with hints of helter-skelter along the midway of enterprising con men and scam artists.

But in each ad, the latter part of the ad calms down by means of the music and the tone of the voiceover narration. The calming, steadying force is of course First Union - the mountain. In contrast to the false gods and idols spurred by the forces of greed and opportunism,
First Union, "the Mountain," represents the unified, universal God of the Old Testament. This in no way should detract from the fact that First Union portrays itself as a Mountain because it wants to be seen as a powerhouse that encompasses one stop banking -- all your financial needs taken care of by one bank.


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© Copyright 1998-2003
Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey