If you were a Wachovia customer reading the top stories on The New York Times’s Web site this weekend, you might, naturally, have wanted to check the Wachovia site to see what the nation’s fourth-largest bank had to say about Citigroup’s purchase of its banking operations. You’d have been slightly disappointed. Wachovia’s landing page has a single line explaining the acquisition: “Wachovia announces bank subsidiary divestitures to Citigroup.” The link leads to a press release that spins the news: “Wachovia Corporation to become a focused leader in retail brokerage and asset management.”
Even if, as bank representatives are hasty to say, the average customer can, yep, go on with their daily lives, America’s rapidly-morphing banking institutions nonetheless ought to be more transparent with their customers. More than thirty percent of American banking deposits will now be controlled by three institutions, but the modest “Welcome to JPMorgan Chase” sign on the Washington Mutual Web site, leading customers to their new landing page, does everything it can to downplay the implications of the merger. And the images of cheerful children otherwise found on the site, as Virginia Heffernan bemoans in The New York Times Magazine this week, strike the wrong note. (“I’m spooked, honestly, by Merrill Lynch’s bull, just as I was by the daisy-smiley “Live Richly” ad campaign from the retail bank Citibank,” she adds.)
Heffernan, using Lehman Brothers as an example, notes that it’s “hard not to read its demise as that of a superman who survived war and disease … The Lehman Web site, which said nothing about the firm’s bankruptcy filing apart from one paragraph in a press release, did little to discourage such an understanding.” While Heffernan’s skewering of banking sites, entitled “Shiny Happy Bankers,” lacks depth, her larger point—that the rescue of a number of our largest financial institutions has in some sense occurred solely in the headlines—stands. Bank customers are more likely to learn things—what sort of trickle-down they can expect, how worried they should be about the F.D.I.C. running out of money—from personal finance columns and headlines than from their own affected banks. And while that speaks pretty well of the press’s attempts to break down the situation, it speaks pretty badly of the banks’ apparent satisfaction with framing the unfolding situation in as abstract a manner as possible. It’s all very Marie Antoinette, and the cake is a “smooth road ahead” proposition to the hoi polloi.
It’s perhaps trivial to judge burdened banks on their Web site content. But maybe it’s telling to note that marketing tactics like See our happy customers! float or sink on the tradability of a boast—that banks’ loyalty to their customers is reason for customers to in turn be loyal to their banks. Now, however, seems a clumsy time to keep hawking that boast. I doubt there are many shiny, happy customers out there. And regardless, they shouldn’t have to settle for reading JPMorgan’s Chase’s “Statement to Washington Mutual Customers” on The New York Times’s Web site.