From the September 2014 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Seeing the Glamorous Side of Finance

Virginia Postrel reflects on financial advice and visual persuasion

Photography by Jonah Light Photography by Jonah Light

Glamour matters—and financial advisors ought to pay attention to it. That is a lesson I take from Virginia Postrel, author of The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion (Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Postrel, a Los Angeles-based Bloomberg View columnist, edited the libertarian magazine Reason in the 1990s (I wrote a number of articles for it then). Her 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies espoused free-market technological development, and her 2003 The Substance of Style celebrated the economic role of aesthetics. She practices what she calls “intellectual arbitrage,” or connecting ideas across multiple disciplines.

Postrel defines glamour as “nonverbal rhetoric” (conveyed by visual images) that “leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.” Its essential elements, in her telling, are: “a promise of escape and transformation” (letting people project themselves into a desired situation); “grace” (omitting flaws and obstacles); and “mystery” (leaving some things to the audience's imagination). Hats and sunglasses, for instance, can add a touch of glamour through concealment.

She discusses diverse “icons” of glamour, including aviators, princesses and California (which has lost some glamour amid traffic and fiscal problems, she adds). Glamour can inspire people to improve their lives or the world. However, Postrel writes: “The flip side of glamour is horror,” as “glamorous archetypes” like the vampire or femme fatale “remind us of how easy it is to succumb to manipulation and desire.”

To explore how glamour and visual persuasion relate to finance, I contacted Postrel for an email interview, which appears in slightly edited form below.

What are your impressions of the financial services industry's use of visual imagery in its marketing efforts?

Financial services advertising that doesn't just use numbers generally looks like travel advertising: couples or families walking on beaches, hiking on trails, sitting by pools, overlooking the rail on cruise ships. It sells leisure and family time. As a reminder of why you’re saving and investing, it makes sense, but I don't see how it differentiates any given firm from another.

It is interesting, however, that industry advertising uses almost entirely positive, often glamorous imagery—here's what life could look like—rather than playing on people's fears of running out of money. I wonder whether it sends the signal that its services are for people who don't have to worry about money. (I collected some examples on a Pinterest board here: http://www.pinterest.com/vpostrel/financial-service-ads/. Interestingly, many of these are templates designed for small firms or individual practitioners.)

Should financial advisors care about glamour, and why? Can it help them get new clients or choose investments?

In a financial context, glamour can be dangerous, because it tends to sell wealth without effort or risk. While looking for ads online, I came across an advice site for women with a meme-style quote: “I am open and willing to allow good to come to me. Money flows effortlessly into my life.” The idea that money will flow effortlessly into your life is glamorous but ridiculous, and the site in fact gave some serious advice that started with a cold-eyed assessment of your current financial situation.

A good financial advisor needs to connect the glamorous image of the good life with the systematic program that makes it possible.

“Glamour stock” is, of course, a term of art, and while glamour stocks do occasionally pay off big, a diversified portfolio is a better idea.

Is Wall Street (the industry and/or the place) glamorous? Has it become more or less so over time?

Wall Street is a good example of the relation between glamour and horror. From a distance, it suggests easy money: wealth somehow conjured out of the air. A less simplistic but equally glamorous idea is wealth gained through special insight and the ability to spot patterns no one else sees. These are alluring ideas that attract individual investors and a steady flow of talent into Wall Street jobs. But they also suggest what has always frightened people about finance. It seems like some kind of trick or gambling, disconnected from “real life” or “real business.”

Will visual persuasion become more important in the economy in the coming decades?

Absolutely. We are increasingly a visual culture, where visual persuasion and visual literacy are essential. I recently participated in an online discussion of visual persuasion in politics. One of the other participants, Martin Gurri, noted that people watch 6 billion hours of video on YouTube every month and that Facebook contains 250 billion photos, making it the “largest repository of images in human history.” Whether created by amateurs or professionals—or the many people who fall somewhere in between—digital images are integral to the way we communicate, whether or not we literate sorts acknowledge it.

By training and background, financial advisors are likely to be more adept with words and numbers than with visual imagery. Any tips on building skills that would help them thrive in an increasingly visual economy?

A financial advisor whose skills lie elsewhere shouldn't aspire to become a graphic designer or visual artist but, rather, to rely on the division of labor and hire professionals when those skills are needed. But you can still train your eye. It's mostly a matter of paying attention and looking carefully at things you might otherwise glance at. Also, when you find yourself moved by an image (including moving images), think about why. Look again, more closely. Pinterest is a good tool for both finding images and collecting them. It allows you to create private boards, so you don't have to share what you’re doing with the public if you don't want to.

For financial professionals, what's most important is simply understanding that the visual can be a source of real economic value. It isn't simply fluff. That message goes back to my 2003 book, The Substance of Style. In that book, I talked about the concept of “standing out and fitting in.” We use aesthetics to signal two aspects of identity: distinctiveness and group affiliation. If you’re designing a magazine cover, you first have to know what sort of magazine it is. A bridal magazine will look more different from a hot rod magazine than it will from its direct competitors.

One reason that ads for financial advisors look so much alike, I think, is that it is important first and foremost to be credible. Distinctiveness is secondary. The question is whether you in fact have a distinctive brand identity and, if so, how you might show that within the visual conventions of financial advertising. Traditionally, the way to do this is to show your picture, both because that's simple and because “it's me” is in fact the brand identity of most advisors, and clients do care about who's handling their money. (When Charles Schwab the company was just starting out, they discovered, quite by accident, that ads showing Charles Schwab the man generated a much higher response.) But if you offer something special, such as serving a specific client population, maybe there's a way to signal that.

Financial advisors need to pay attention to what's happening with infographics and the visual display of quantitative information, which has become a huge growth area. Demand is outstripping the supply of people who can present quantitative information well, and financial advisors who are used to explaining complicated concepts to clients may have insights that, working with graphic designers, they can share this way.

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