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Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

My New Motto: Don't Be Boring


My New Motto: Don't Be Boring

Jo Ann Barefoot

As someone who’s spent decades fascinated by consumer financial protection, I feel entitled to state the following truth.  One of the core problems is that the whole topic bores everyone to death.  Okay, not everyone – there are many lawyers and regulators and (I say this affectionately) compliance geeks who love it, but are there any consumers who do?  Anywhere?

The question is on my mind after a recent lunch with my former colleague Lyn Farrell of Treliant Risk Advisors.  As a top-tier consultant, Lyn travels every week and long ago attained super-elite Global Services status on United Airlines.  When our conversation turned to our favorite topic of how consumer financial information can be made more useful, Lyn caught me by surprise by asking if I’ve seen United’s new onboard safety video.  She proceeded, on the basis of having seen this little film exactly one time a  week ago, to describe it to me in detail with nearly full recall, scene by scene.

It’s hard to imagine disclosure information more boring to a seasoned traveler than the standard safety briefing.  The script usually still tells us how to fasten a seatbelt -- by inserting the flat metal fitting into the buckle and pulling the strap until the belt sits low and tight across our laps, and then to release by pulling up on the metal tab.  Those words were written during an ancient era before cars had seatbelts, which according to Wikipedia ended 46 years ago.  Is there anyone older than a toddler who travels in an airplane and does not know how to buckle a seatbelt? 

The fact that the script starts with this instruction and its accompanying how-to explanation sends an immediate signal to everyone on board:  stop listening, because we are not saying anything useful.  If the rest of the briefing is better, few people ever find out because they haven’t heard it.  And how about that language?  How many of us could even define the noun, “fitting”?  It’s a good thing we already know how to put on a seatbelt.

Various airlines – famously Southwest – have tried to recapture our attention to the safety briefing through humor, and now United has decided to change it up in their video.  Here is the link

Notice some things.

It makes you chuckle.  It’s not hilarious, but it makes you smile and even laugh, and more than once.

It surprises you repeatedly, both with its setup and at specific moments, such as when you first realize the woman has turned her sheet of paper into an origami airplane.

It’s culturally and visually rich.

It depicts sensory variety -- people stowing underseat luggage by sliding it through sand on a beach, people hanging in the air in a gondola, no one at all in an airplane.

It takes you on a journey not only with your eyes, but also with your ears as the iconic United theme, Rhapsody in Blue, plays in different musical styles for different kinds of places (more sensory engagement).

It includes cute animals.

I suppose it may get boring to see the video over and over, but it caught Lyn’s attention, and mine.  I’d love to know what “innovator” had the bright idea to break the old boring information out of the old boring mold, and whether they’ll change it again when people lose interest.

Meanwhile, there are lessons for consumer financial disclosure.  Granted, it’s a stretch for regulators to inject cute animals into their mandates.  Still, they – and financial companies too – should think about how to convey information in ways that are fresh, engaging, visually appealing, and actually interesting.  They should also think about ways to avoid shutting down the consumer’s interest at the very first glance, with the equivalent of a seatbelt-fastening tutorial.  They should make information highly useful. 

The CFPB has consciously moved in this direction, and more would be welcome, at least to actual consumers.

So, here is my new motto for consumer financial protection – DON’T BE BORING!

Tell me what you think.