The Halifax bank is running a series of adverts attempting to entice new customers, offering them £100 for switching to a Halifax Current (Checking, to my US friends!) Account. They feature a woman called Linda, who they obviously chose because she looks so ordinary. She has ordinary hair, an ordinary face, is of ordinary height. In one scene she is pictured working in a hardware store (to avoid female stereotyping), with the strapline ‘Linda, you deserve it’.
As regular readers will know, ‘deserve’ is one of those words that always grabs my attention. It is supposed to signal merit, some action or quality the performance or possession of which entitles one to the treatment, goods or services in question, but does the word mean that in this advert?
What has Linda, and by implication everyone who identifies with her – which is supposed to be the vast majority of the population, done to deserve a bank which rewards her for transferring her account to them?
Nothing, so far as I can tell. She is employed, at least part time, but it is not clear whether or not that is the criterion. Linda, it seems, deserves a rewarding bank account because we all do.
Of course, there is small print, covered by that marvellous catch-all phrase ‘Terms and Conditions apply’, but they seem to be surprisingly few – you must be 18 or over, you must be resident in the UK, you must not be an employee of their particular banking group… the bar is pretty low.
Can you really be said to ‘deserve’ something which only requires that you have kept breathing for more than 6,570 days, live in the right country and are not employed by the person making the offer? The first is entirely out of your control, as is the second in most cases, due to an accident of birth rather than any particular design (maybe people actively move to the UK for the sake of getting £100 from a new bank account, but that seems a little extreme!). The third criterion is something of a negative one – you meet it by having not shown a particular interest in this bank before. In fact, the offer is only available to people who are not already customers of the bank – it is the fact you have consistently taken your business elsewhere that means you deserve the hassle of switching your allegiance now.
Human beings have a strong sense of justice. From a very early age we develop and express a desire for fairness, and get very upset when we don’t get what we think is our due – when we don’t get what we think we deserve. Where do children learn the phrase ‘It’s not fair!’? I’m sure no parents teach it to them, but somehow they stumble across it, and deploy it with gusto when they perceive that another child is receiving preferential treatment, or even when they feel the punishment for their latest disobedience outstrips the seriousness of the crime.
What uproar is caused when the ‘wrong’ contestant is eliminated from the latest round of X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing! On a more serious level, the British Social Attitudes survey consistently shows that around 55% of Brits agree or agree strongly with the statement “for some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence”.
The point is, we all have a strong sense of right and wrong, what behaviours merit reward and what merit punishment. Advertising slogans that seek to appeal to our sense of justice by claiming we deserve the product or service on offer merely cheapen the word, and contribute to the blurring of the lines in our sense of right and wrong.
If everyone deserves everything good, the concept of virtue becomes utterly incoherent. If no actions or attitudes are rewarded more highly than any others, we lose any sense of a moral code and slip into a meaningless existentialism – if it feels good, do it, if not, it probably doesn’t matter, because you’ll get your £100 anyway. After all, you deserve it, don’t you?