By Lewis Blackwell |

January 8, 2014 | 10 min read

Lewis Blackwell probes the world of Wonga, searching for what lies behind the spectacular growth and range of the payday loan giant’s advertising.

In the age of digital migration, how heartening it is to hear of a great success story for the old-fashioned TV commercial.

Yes, I've been pondering on the spectacular stats just revealed around payday loan company ads. According to Ofcom, there was a growth from 11,000 payday loan ads being broadcast on UK telly in 2009 to an austerity-busting 397,000 in 2012.

Ofcom took particular interest in breaking out how each adult on average had 152 viewings of some kind of payday loan while each child aged four to 15 clocked up 70 viewings. It seems everybody's getting a good chance to appreciate the virtues of payday lending. But some killjoys out there in pressure groups and in political lobbies think this is not such a good thing.

There has been concern that children as well as adults are being groomed for a life of crippling exploitation by loan companies, who pitch jolly little spots that gloss over the heavier detail of running up debts with potentially massive interest charges. Tsk, tsk. Some people see only the negatives.

It would be nice to know how the industry leader, Wonga, defends its corner. It might tell us how it has enhanced millions of lives with the ease of its lending, helping people avoid the rude rebuttal of traditional banks or the dangerous embrace of old-fashioned loan sharks.

It might also explain to us the logic behind the silly chats of the friendly animated figures that appear in its commercials, the Wongies. This bunch of puppet pensioners would seem tailor-made to appeal to a broad audience, including those impressionable youngsters. But that may be a mis-reading that could be easily corrected.

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However, the inside view is not so easily obtained. Certainly nowhere near so easy as signing yourself up for a payday loan with potentially exorbitant interest charges that could suck all the money out of your life.

I wanted to ask the puppet masters at Wonga to tell us about the thinking behind the creative approach they have taken across a range of media. However, both Wonga’s press office and its funky Shoreditch agency Albion were suddenly overcome with shyness. Odd for a company so able to broadcast its messages on everything from TV to bus sides to a Premier League shirts and right into the inboxes of naughty under-age kids.

When I asked if Wonga and Albion could talk to me about the advertising they apologetically indicated they would be unable to give any interview until some time in the New Year. I wonder why? Are they all working in Santa's grotto? I'm not holding my breath for an answer and I might be rash in even presuming that the New Year in question is 2014. But it does seem a shame that just when the world is really ready to hear the justification of its work, it goes all bashful and clams up.

So we'll just have to use our own powers of analysis about what makes its advertising so... good. It's perhaps controversial to use the word 'good' for communications of a service so often described as evil, and yet the spectacular growth of the business indicates the ads work extremely well. The ad industry and the TV media sellers have so much to be proud of here – even if they might want to keep their kids away from it.

These are commercials that are seriously impressive in terms of cut-through, just when we thought the old style TV campaign was in decline. The doddery dramas of the Wongies regularly top recall statistic charts for TV spots. What one person might see as monstrous preying on the vulnerable, others could see as brilliantly effective communication to the target. They seem to work like a bullet from a sniper's rifle at 1000 yards, or perhaps it is more like a machine gun across a packed refugee camp. Of course, that's just the bad press image talking – the idea that these ads are designed to prey on the desperate poor while also exploiting the naivety of the young... well, I'm just repeating media stereotypes that we need Wonga to correct in open debate.

It is definitely the case that not everybody's happy at this fantastically professional penetration of the impoverished. A quick googling of reaction on the web and some nasty words and phrases turn up. If you're interested in contemporary abuse, then have a surf. We don't have time or space to list all the choice phrases that can be found around major and minor online media when it comes to opining about Wonga. But put it this way, it's hard to find fans.

Perhaps that's why the company created openwonga.com, a site of selected information created by the generosity of Wonga itself and which doesn't seem terribly open at all. It seems to be very much about how Wonga would like us to see its world, rather than engaging with how the world sees it. Anyway, on openwonga.com Wonga tells us that 'one of the UK's most respected film-makers, Bafta-nominated Gary Tarn, has been invited to go behind the headlines at Wonga to tell the story of our customers'.

I've a feeling relatively few Wonga customers will get to the end of the artful 28-minute film from this 'most respected' director, a piece called ‘12 Portraits’. I've got a feeling they might be too keen to get their hands on some short-term money for a short-term need rather than watch this evasive guff. But I did this so you might not have to. Watching the film was one of the least informative experiences I've had in quite a while – it definitely comes a poor second to watching paint dry. A close view and sniff of some fine white gloss hardening on a window frame would be more emotionally engaging and slightly less nauseous than Tarn's avoidance of the big issues around Wonga.

“There's more important things in life than materialistic things,” the first 'unscripted' customer says, an attractive young mother who is talking about her family against some plonky ambient music. Then there is some young chap talking about his passion for music. Maybe he bought a guitar with a loan or maybe not. Later some chap talks about his motorbike which I guess he might have bought with a loan but it's much more about the benefits of having a bike. Somebody else talks about loving their girlfriend and Wonga somehow helped there. I'm thinking it might be because they bunged the cash over to purchase a ring which then turned out as unnecessary because his gran gave her a ring... but I'm working hard at this because this is work but I'm still getting nowhere. So perhaps he gave the money back pronto and didn't get stung for the interest rates. God knows. Anyway, I'm having to imagine all the things Gary Tarn doesn't show, which helps pass the time while watching the clock run down on the tedious bollocks. Oh and now here's some token diversity, a young woman from Ghana who has to cook for the family and... what the heck has Wonga done to help here? I dunno. Do those imported veggies require a loan? Oh, and she's an auditor. So I guess that's like saying Wonga is really OK, because she knows about accounting. Maybe.

I'm babbling – but you don't know babbling until you watch ‘12 Portraits’. It's supercinebabble. It's a strange avoidance of clear communication. Indeed, the whole openwonga.com website is a bizarre attempt to make me feel good rather than understand good. I ended up wondering what they had to hide. The world-according-to-Wonga could have been advised by somebody who has spent time studying the ways of North Korea.

But I think openwonga.com does help explain the creative strategy, despite being the worst example of it. The creative strategy is to do what works, do what's legal (at least now), do what makes Wonga seem wonderful, kind, fun, simple... a friend you can trust and who it would be rude to question. Never mind all those smart-alec naysayers, those fusspots in government etc, just believe in your chum Wonga to sort you out. Kindly old Wonga (or Wongies) can fix it for you.

But as we know so well these days, kindly people in positions of authority can turn out not to be trustworthy. So while Wonga might believe it is the best thing ever, it really ought to accept that believing in its own advertising is probably not going to do the trick long-term. It's unsustainable. It has to face the real debate and acknowledge it in the brand. Which perhaps it is just about to do.

When George Osborne finally signalled he was going to do something about putting a cap on the interest rates charged by Wonga and its competitors, and shortly afterwards it wouldn't talk to me, I've got to thinking it might be rethinking its approach.

I think it might move from cuddly evasion to something that is altogether more front-foot and aggressive. It is cornered and, at some point, it will need to come out fighting. At some point its claim to 'straight-talking' may actually be apparent in its ads.

I'm thinking this space could get a lot more interesting in communication terms before it gets 'properly regulated'. But I'm also thinking that the TV companies and media buyers that have done so well out of the past few years’ growth may want to trim their forecasts.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 8 January print edition.

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