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.