The Chemistry’s Just Right at Chemical

This week we have something a little different for you. Every now and again we like to take a short break from presenting good ideas for the city and its future in order to reach back into the vault for vintage examples of how we have seen and imagined the physical city in the past. The occasional trip down memory lane reminds us that representations of the city bear heavily upon how we understand it and, therefore, how we choose to intervene. So far, we’ve looked at films about New York through a lens of radical politics, we entertained a fantastical proposition from the 1960s to reclaim Manhattan’s streets for pedestrian use, and we even pondered the lasting legal legacy of the blizzard of 1888. This week, however, we’re only going back 25 years. 1985… Reagan’s second term was beginning, Marty McFly was driving a Delorean back to the future, and we were the world.

1985 was also the year that Chemical Bank (now a legacy institution of J.P. Morgan Chase) launched a television ad campaign that spotlighted some neighborhoods of New York. The image of the city to which these commercials pay homage is the kind of cliché that is both comforting and timeless. For this reason alone, they are worth checking out. But, they are also worth considering because they portray the relationship between banking, city and community as empathetic and mutually supportive. Viewed in 2010, this rosy view seems surprising, if not specious. We just don’t think of banks that way nowadays. The wistfulness of the Chemical Bank ads makes us wonder: in a financial landscape of securitization and globally distributed risk, is it possible or desirable for banking to have a place-based, local connection?

Each of the three videos above is an installment of the “The Chemistry’s Just Right at Chemical” 1985 television campaign, produced by Della Femina, Travisano and Partners.

Up until the end of the 19th century, all retail banks were local enterprises; most states prohibited banks from branching in an effort to maintain small banks’ competitiveness. In 1898, New York became one of the first states to allow banks to open branches. This legislative change coincided with a huge expansion of the urban population and the political consolidation of New York City as the political entity we know today. When the New York City Subway opened in 1904, the first bank to see this system as a blueprint for where to locate branches in the outer boroughs was the Corn Exchange Bank, which Chemical acquired in 1954.

The straphanger branches were just one of several instances in the history of Chemical Bank that demonstrate its ability to identify new markets and mechanisms for service delivery in a metropolitan context. In 1969, Chemical installed the first prototype cash-dispensing machine in America. And in 1983, it introduced “Pronto,” the first major full-fledged online banking service using a home computer, modem and software (1983?!). As ATMs became the norm over the course of the early 1980s, however, the relevance of bank branches was uncertain. In a letter to the Times in 1988, Fraser Seitel, a Senior Vice President at Chase, concedes “large banks, lobbying for parity with other financial competitors, have been closing neighborhood branches… [because] many customers prefer other ‘delivery systems’ – automated teller machines, the mails, telephone, credit cards.” The prospects of a face-to-face, local connection in banking were starting to dim.

Print ad for the Chemical Cash Machine. Image from “A Short History of J.P. Morgan Chase”

These commercials, launched on local TV stations in late February of 1985, capitalized on one of New York’s abiding obsessions: its neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its own sense of place, the bank ads told us, its own chemistry. Such essences may be singular and ineffable, but these ads nonetheless suggested that knowing your community means being able to reduce it to a concise visual shorthand that intones the nostalgia of localism against a backdrop of metropolitan grandeur. Greenwich Village is a saxophonist in a jazz club. Harlem is a neighborly feast. Midwood is boys playing street hockey. The neighborhood angle fit nicely with the bank’s existing slogan, “the Chemistry’s just right at Chemical,” while signaling a shift in marketing strategy. Previous campaigns promoted bank products and services. This campaign, created by advertising agency Della Femina, Travisano & Partners, emphasized the bank’s overall brand identity as a large financial institution with deep roots in local communities.

Do locally familiar banks offer more locally relevant loans or savings advice? One of the legislative responses to the deterioration of the American city throughout the 1970s was the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), passed in 1977 to assure that “regulated financial institutions have [a] continuing and affirmative obligation to help meet the credit needs of the local communities in which they are chartered.” Intended to protect low-income neighborhood from such discriminatory practices as redlining, the CRA – and its corollaries like the Home Mortage Disclosure Act (HDMA) – ended up demonstrating to banks that communities with limited access to bank services and credit constituted a huge market. The data unleashed by the HDMA allowed regulators to ask new questions about how much banks were doing to make credit and banking services available to the underserved. Not only did they start to ask “for whom?” but also, crucially, “where?” Location, after all, matters.

Three views of the Manhattan skyline, from "The Chemistry's Just Right at Chemical" #3

Three views of the Manhattan skyline, from “The Chemistry’s Just Right at Chemical” #3

Rather than protest the new CRA regulations, Chemical Bank was one of the large national banks, along with NationsBank and Bank of America, that willingly started to “set up community development divisions and pledged billions of dollars to low-income communities.” The 1985 ads were not about proving the bank’s commitment to social justice and economic opportunity for all, however. They were about celebrating its intimate familiarity with – and inextricability from – its urban landscape. In 1985, Chemical Bank had 260 branches in the greater New York area. The ads highlighted a few specific branch locations and detailed, in a voiceover equal parts affirmation and mirth, the ways those branches tailored services to meet the specific demands of their customers: a teller window dedicated to senior citizens in one branch or special programs for first time homeowners in another. Chemical Bank knows its customers and their needs, the ads told us. And it understands the way these needs are determined by geography: the senior-only window is in an Upper West Side branch; the homeownership program is in Yonkers. The needs of New Yorkers are the needs of New York’s neighborhoods.

The roots of Chemical Bank, and its branches, reach back to its Greenwich Village founding as a producer of camphor and saltpeter in 1823. Over the next 150 years, it grew to become one of the largest bank holding companies in the country. But its advertising, at least on New York area TV stations in the mid-80s, emphasized that the bank itself was a native New Yorker.

The first three shots of "The Chemistry's Just Right at Chemical" television commerical #1

Left to right: the first three shots of “The Chemistry’s Just Right at Chemical” television commercial #1

The first ad to air (#1 above) begins in black and white with a classic montage of three iconic images that establishes New York’s majesty and scale in seven seconds flat: a close-up of the Brooklyn Bridge, a medium shot of a crowd of pedestrians bustling through the financial district at Nassau Street and Maiden Lane, and a long shot of the harbor, the skyline and the Staten Island Ferry (an image sequence that refers to the opening montage of Manhatta, the first ever city-symphony film made in 1921 by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand) The voiceover comes in over the second shot to tell us that New York has “always had a chemistry all its own.” Just as this particular idea of New York’s chemistry – massive, impressive and imposing – is planted firmly in viewers’ minds, the commercial turns to more light-hearted pop-cultural references and idiomatic quirks from the nicknames of Duke Snider and Babe Ruth to the urban alleyway games of sewer-to-sewer and Johnny-on-the-pony. What makes New York unique can be found in its languages, foods, pastimes and heroes. The Chemical ads recall these traditions to imply that this bank, too, has long contributed to New York’s essential character.

Left to right: depictions of Chemical branches in Flushing, Grand Central Terminal and Huntington, L.I.

The second and third commercials move away from New York’s history to focus more specifically on how Chemical sees the metropolitan area of New York as a collection of small towns, where branch managers make it their business to understand and tailor services to the unique demands of each community.

Taken together, the ads seem to suggest not only that the bank branch is a neighborhood institution, whose staff is as familiar as the chemist and the barber and the soda jerk, but also that the bank branch is uniquely situated to understand the importance of relationships at scales both local and urban: the stickball game and the stately skyline.

If the ads were arguing that an intimate knowledge of both scales is what informs Chemical Bank’s particular brand of face-to-face relationships and geographically specific convenience, then these days, our notions of both relationship and convenience – networked, distributed and on-demand – are strikingly different. When was the last time you thought of your bank branch as a neighborhood institution? When was the last time the notion of banks inspired nostalgia on par with lime rickies or Mickey Mantle?

These days, the thought of finance in the big city is more likely to provoke questions about the bailout or calls for regulatory reform than to make you imagine a summertime afternoon in your grandfather’s youth. American political discourse on both the left and the right has often pitted the interests of global finance (symbolized by Wall Street) against those of small town, working America (symbolized by Main Street). To relate the banking industry to the small town flavor and values still present within the big city requires an increasingly large mental leap. And, rightly or wrongly, the sight of non-bank financial service providers, like check cashing places and payday lenders, evokes far more about the specific economic circumstances of a given neighborhood than an FDIC-insured bank branch does.

Left to right: depictions of Freeport, Midwood and the Upper East Side

Left to right: depictions of Freeport, L.I., Midwood and the Upper East Side

Whether or not banks take the pulse of the communities in which they are located, whether or not they are a part of their community’s chemistry, they are an undeniable part of our urban landscape. Increasingly, the effect banks have on the built environment of New York is  homogenizing, especially in terms of the sheer amount of street level real estate banks take up in Manhattan. In April of 2007, Amy Cortese reported on a “building binge” for bank branches in urban areas across the country. Earlier this year, Diana Lind of The Next American City found that bank branches and ATM kiosks command more street-level retail in Manhattan than Starbucks, Duane Reade, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds and Rite Aid combined. And whereas in 1985 the FDIC insured 14,417 banking institutions nationwide, which were responsible for a combined total of 43,739 branches, by 2008 (the most recent year for which statistics are available, before the collapse of Wachovia, Washington Mutual, Commerce and others), the country had half as many banks and nearly twice as many branches: 7,086 banks and 82,547 branches.

This week the banking committee of the United States Senate will present its bill for an overhaul of the industry that will introduce a new consumer protection agency and give Washington, and the Federal Reserve specifically, sweeping new powers over large bank holding companies. Will banks’ reaction to this increased centralized oversight reintroduce them to the lure of the local? Or will demographically and geographically specific financial products – like mortgages – continue to be more about inflated promises of alchemy rather than a nuanced understanding of a neighborhood’s chemistry? It seems long ago and far away that a bank could plausibly try to sell itself on its close connection to a specific place.

Further reading:

– A Short History of J.P. Morgan Chase (click here to download pdf).

– “To Save America’s Finances, Bring Back Community Banking” by Phillip Longman and Ellen Seidman. November 20, 2008

Testimony of Ellen Seidman before the Committee on Financial Services, Unites States House of Representatives. February 13th, 2008

3 Responses to “The Chemistry’s Just Right at Chemical”

  1. Jeff says:

    Excellent work; I’d love to see more of this!

    There’s definitely a trend towards local attention and locally situated value-propositions among commodity products, I agree.

    But banking is a different beast, I think. Banking, as you mention, loves big capital markets where the effects of a bank’s actions can multiply–as huge gains or losses. I don’t see small banks coming back anytime soon, nor do I see any local intervention from big banks anytime soon, either.

    There are much better opportunities for a bank to invests its money abroad in terms of getting high returns, and if one’s looking for a safe investment, I’m not so sure local markets work there, either.

    Municipal bonds are a big market for many of these banks, and that’s not to mention products like sale-leaseback arrangements of local infrastructure (I think smaller firms dab in this more…). But on both, the banks make fees setting up the deals, not really on the actual financing aspect.

    In a way, I think banks have moved towards a “services” economy themselves, reflective of a larger US economic shift, and capital investment (the “manufacturing” of our analogy) has likewise shifted overseas to China, India, Brazil, etc. where the gains are likely to be larger.

  2. Ron Travisano says:

    This was sent to me by an old friend, Bernie Drayton, who remembers our agency, Della Femina Travisano and Partners well. It touched my heart to be reminded of not only the quality of the work our agency did in those days, but of a time when the New York and the World was a kinder more loving place to be… a time when creativity in advertising came out of a meaningful concept rather than some new trend or technical innovation. We need to revisit a lifestyle that was generated out of a love for our fellow man. Thank you Bernie for this wonderful visit to the past. Ron Travisano

  3. Donald says:

    Absolutely fascinating, and a fantastic piece of urban-financial geography that deserves a wide audience beyond NY. A great bit of excavation of the 1980s too. I wonder how the adverts were received at that time, given how on the nose bank adverts are now…they are almost charming now, but maybe they had customers retching back then? I love the place quotation too behind the teller desks Grand Central, Rockefeller etc.

Leave a Reply