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First Union01-99

Two other First Union ads address the reconstructive evolution of Capital and its architecture. In the first of these ads, the banking environment is shown in transition. Following their basic formula, the first part of the ad presents a scenic representation of the ruins of our financial institutions as they used to be. Counterposed to the dusty, decrepit, crumbling debris of past banking institutions, is the sleek, ultramodern exterior of First Union's tower that stretches skyward as far as the eye can see.

"In the financial world, banking as we have known it
has become a thing of the past.
Brokerages, insurance companies,
all of our financial institutions are in transition.
Teller windows have become electronic gateways,
the savings book is now the investment portfolio
and financial products which once could only be obtained from a vast number of different sources
can now be obtained from one.
Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, planning, insurance
all have moved to a single place,
to the financial mountain called First Union,
who for half a century has helped investors seeking diversity, growth and security.
Come to the mountain called First Union.
Or if you prefer, the mountain will come to you."

This ad addresses the changing infrastructure of Capital, hailing the consolidation of a banking and related financial industries that are no longer legally fragmented in terms of financial instruments and services. The ad opens with a reference to the fact that banking capital, thanks to the repeal of the 1934 Glass-Steagle Act is no longer regulated by what bankers considered Byzantine rules that separated banks from brokerages (and from an array of other financial functions).

First Union01-99
The brokerage house crumbles above, while the scene below resembles a fallen statue of Liberty just below the dollar sign on an ashen ediface behind it.
First Union01-99

Early scenes depict something like the collapse of an empire a decaying building identified as a "Brokerage" institution is shown crumbling, while another scene shows the signage for an "Insurance" lies broken on the ground. The statue now lying on the ground bears a resemblance to the Statue of Liberty. But why place such a vaunted icon of American freedom as part of the rubble of a now-dead stage of civilization? Could this be an allusion to the demise of the older relationship between the financial sector and the regulatory state?

History is invoked here as a negative - it has crumbled under its own weight. The ad shows us this history so that we may understand how slow, ponderous and outmoded banks of the past have become. Here, we can may perceive a sly "sign war" agenda (see Sign Wars) aimed at delegitimating older banks and brokerage houses. By contrast First Union shows itself superceding outdated and inefficient financial institutions. One of the campaign's agendas was to establish a brand image that could be differentiated not just from other banks, but from the giant mutual fund companies such as Fidelity and Charles Schwab with whom First Union must now compete.

The second force alluded to by the commercial is how the banking landscape has changed with the development of electronic computer technologies. "Teller windows have become electronic gateways, the savings book is now the investment portfolio." Banking institutions that dominated during earlier decades are in ruins and can no longer be considered modern - they are inefficient, dusty, broken, musty, and ill-lit. The passbook is an antiquated relic, a dusty, crumbling reminder of a past spent in lines.

First Union01-99
First Union01-99

The passbook refers to the now technologically outmoded regime of paper, a regime that has fallen into disuse. Still the scenes of a past in which middle class patrons stood in line feel ambivalent. While they appear almost ghostly -- gentle reminders of a less advanced period -- these sepia-tinted images also suggest a bit of nostalgia for the 1950s.There seems to lurk here an odd moment of nostalgia for those ghostly days of waiting in lines to show a teller your passbook. Some images suggest an earlier era of prosperity when one had a personal relationship with the bank teller. Even here, in what is obviously a scene chronicling the death of such relations, both customer and bank teller are smiling, engaged in those convivial social relationships that Robert Putnam (2000) bemoans the loss of in his book Bowling Alone. The third political-economic force referred to is the concentration and centralization of capital, as banks grow bigger (mountains) and more streamlined - notice how sleek and metallic the new buildings look as opposed to its stone predecessors. Combined with the regulatory shift mentioned above, the combinations of corporations into ever larger units paves the way for the surviving giants of the merger and acquisitions game to compete in offering one-stop shopping for consumers, to try to dominate their markets from their mountaintop. The ad suggests a dramatic ontological shift with the transition to the world of First Union. The sky brightens, revealing an almost glistening skyline. Seconds later, we see that it is illuminated by a shining golden beacon, while money floats along on wind currents. After all, all that shines is gold, or is that all that is gold is to be valued? When looking at the ruins of Capital past, the camera shots are looking down, but camera movement in the world of First Union is upward. Combined with the golden light shining across the building and the music, there is more than a hint of a religious allusion here.

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In the new urban commerce landscape notice the corporate symbols that adorn the top of buildings around the First Union citadel -- is this meant to be a postmodern financial landscape? All the buildings here are marked by the signs of their function in contrast to most modern urban architecture which had elevated pure form over function. The dominant paradigms of corporate modernist architecture did their best to conceal outward appearances of function.

Developing a brand identity has become an increasingly important goal for commercial banks such as First Union as non-bank competitors, particularly mutual-fund companies, continue to attract cash hoards that previously would have been stashed in secure but low-yielding bank accounts.
(De Lisser, 1997).

New Economic Formations
Commodification
Social Relations of Production
Information Economy

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