Wells Fargo learns a hard lesson in bad PR by running a dream-crushing ad campaign
Every Saturday morning I sit down to go through my bills, check my receipts, and keep tabs my financial accounts. As a professor of the performing arts, I was deeply concerned when I saw an advertisement from my bank, Wells Fargo, for a “Teen Financial Education Day” on September 17 that depicted a young woman and a young man conducting science experiments. The young woman is described in the ad to be a “ballerina yesterday, an engineer today” and the young man, “an actor yesterday, a botanist today.” Almost all of my students are dancers, actors, and musicians. How could I accept that their career choices, according to this ad, are not as valid as those in the sciences? I also wondered if the team of professionals working for Wells Fargo who took the pictures and created the ad had not had a single member among them with a degree in the arts. I was not surprised when I saw the backlash of statements on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook condemning the ad. After only one day of circulation, Wells Fargo took down the ad and apologized.
On Facebook, Wells Fargo responded: “Wells Fargo is deeply committed to the arts, and we offer our sincere apology for the initial ads promoting our Sept. 17 Teen Financial Education Day. They were intended to celebrate all the aspirations of young people and fell short of that goal. We are making changes to the campaign’s creative that better reflect our company’s core value of embracing diversity and inclusion, and our support of the arts. Last year, Wells Fargo’s support of the arts, culture and education totaled $93 million.” Their post on Twitter was similar. I liked most of what Wells Fargo had to say on Facebook, but the last line was strikingly condescending. Okay, you give money to the arts. So, if this young woman and young man in the pictures were, in fact, to pursue their dreams in college, they would still need people who are not artists to support them? Not buying it.
On September 4, Emily Willingham weighed in on the ad in her article for Forbes online magazine. She asks if anyone at Wells Fargo had ever met a botanist. If Wells Fargo did intend for young people to achieve their financial dreams, then the average salary for a botanist hovers around $50K. Meanwhile, the Screen Actors Guild also lists the average salary of one of its members: you guessed it, around $50K. So, perhaps money isn’t everything, Wells Fargo?
I would like to take a look at why a degree in the arts is not as useless as this ad leads one to believe. At Belmont University we teach students who pursue music, art, dance, and theater. They are well aware that there is great competition in these fields, especially if one aspires to become a household name. As a music historian, I don’t just teach music history. The same goes for all of my colleagues: we don’t teach just music. We teach our students the importance of collaboration skills, a work ethic, gaining professional experience, and making connections in their field. As Stephen Heppell writes for the blog of the Tate Art Museum that, just as in the U.K., the U.S. should turn STEM into STEAM as there are places in our global economy for these types of skills. He states that 50% of CEOs of major corporations list collaboration as the most important skill they value in their employees. Our students play on each other’s recitals and in ensembles. Our professors give the students guidance as well as the space to problem solve the issues relating to an upcoming performance. The students then take the time to work together to create their art.
This leads me to my second point – work ethic. Only rarely do we need to remind our students that while they might be able to “cram” for a physics or botany exam (although they should not do so), there is no substitute for practicing a musical instrument or singing through their exercises and repertoire 20 hours a week. This kind of work ethic translates into many fields, including the field of technology. Paul Miller plainly states the virtue of the work ethic and discipline of an artist or musician in his book, The Digital Renaissance of Work co-authored with Elizabeth Marsh. In a section titled “We Are All Artists and Artisans Now” Miller looks back to his youth and when he was first thinking about a career path. He knew he wanted some meaning for his work and his life. Miller states “I looked around for people to emulate and the only ones I could find tended to be musicians and artists: David Bowie, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, and Harold Pinter. I was struck by how they exuded a relish for their work and appeared to be creating lives worth living.” This is perhaps why my students often tell me they would be utterly unhappy if they lived their lives and knew that they did not even try to pursue their dreams in college.
It is not unusual for me to see my students filter into my classroom looking a bit tired. While most people would write off the tiredness of a college student as “too much partying” or, on the other hand, “staying up too late studying,” I have come to know that my students are tired because they are taking what they are learning in their private lessons and in their academic music classes out into the working world. There are great lessons to be learned from busking downtown. Many students are engineering their own albums and putting their music out on music-specific social media sites like SoundCloud. Others are teaching – not just in the field of music education – but young students in the Nashville area. I have heard of our students teaching elementary, middle, and high school students everything from instrumental and voice lessons, to basic lessons in sight reading and music theory. They learn how money can and is to be made in their field, and just how flexible they must be to maintain their busy lives as students and musicians.
Most importantly, our students are artists today and tomorrow because of the connections they make. While some students enter Belmont hoping to make connections with the big wigs across the street at Nashville’s Music Row, others come to form new friendships that will last a lifetime. Serving in internships, playing on recitals, and even working to put together advertising posters, our students learn the value of making and keeping connections in the arts community. I myself have written reference letters for many students who have taken the initiative to find jobs working with an array of different artists, from Ben Folds to Beyoncé.
This brings us full circle to Wells Fargo’s ad. While Emily Willingham calls out the ad as portraying a seemingly “bleak, dystopian future,” I have been given the gift to see our real future. I have witnessed shy freshman go from practicing their guitar in the hallway, to playing in a quartet on Nashville’s Public Radio station, Classical 91.1 in a few short years. I have seen them combine their music skills with digital literacy to create software and marketing materials for which they are paid by major corporations. I also cherish their posters they ask us to put on our doors to advertise for their senior recitals because I know they will be worth good money someday, but, they will be worth so much more when I show them to new, incoming students who will come to our college wishing to be just like them.