Educating the public about the financial sector and its risks
Ten years after Lehman Brothers’ end and in the middle of the Austria’s EU presidency and the Viennese tourist season, the Austrian National Bank, ÖNB, has launched a mobile information campaign under the heading “Die Euro-Info-Strasse” (The Euro-Info-Street). As part of their Euro-Info-Tour, ÖNB positioned a Tour Bus, painted with the Bank’s logo right in the middle of the tourist trail in front of the Imperial Palace, the Hofburg, where long queues of tourists wait to get into Empress Sissi’s apartments after having scrolled the consumer mile passing the flagship stores of Gucci, Prada e tutti quanti. Positioning the Info Bus right at the border between state (the Emperor’s Palace) and civil society (high-end shopping boulevard) conveys a message; even if this choice of location may have had rather prosaic reasons. Four or five tables with posters, leaflets and each with an iconic installation in front of the bus create the image of a local candidate running for office and reaching out to his electorate. Each thematic installation presents an educational narrative – price stability, responsible spending and money, financial transactions, cash and stability of the financial market (see below).
The four bullet points for a stable financial market in the above picture capture what ÖNB considers as the important messages for the general public: ‘a strict regulatory framework protecting individual assets’; ‘avoiding crises by minimizing systemic risks’; ‘strengthening the resilience of the Austrian financial sector’; and last not least an unspecific reference to the ‘European Banking Union’. As soon as by-passers approach the scene they are greeted by a stylish young male in a polo shirt displaying the ÖNB logo. “May I help you Sir? Do you have any questions?” Asked what the strict regulatory framework exactly entails, the answer came immediately; well, the framework would be really strict and it would protect the assets of the banks’ clients. After two or three attempts to get a response beyond reading the bullet points from the poster, I inquired about the young man’s background, if and how he and his colleagues had been prepared for this job. Did he have a degree, was he enrolled in university, did he work for ÖNB, did he visit a training session to learn some basics about all things financial? None of the above! As it turned out, the job of informing the public about the ÖNB and its portfolio and tasks had been outsourced to a marketing agency and the staff present at the event was hired on the basis of having prior experience with promotion activities in public space.
Obviously, ÖNB had not set up this Euro-Info-Tour to sell savings plans or talk interested individuals into opening an account with a credit card attached. As the guardian of the Austrian financial system the task would have been to inform a lay audience about the dynamics of financial flows and explain the working of the contemporary global monetary system. Concerned citizens might have had questions about the recent financial crisis or even money laundering or tax havens, about Lux leaks or the Panama Papers. However, none of these topics was mentioned in the overall display. Completely unprepared staff read boiler plate sentences from the leaflets they handed out, none of which provided any substantial information beyond substantial advice like “To keep an overview of your personal finance keeping written records of your spending can be helpful.” “Compare prices when you shop for products and services.” Reaching out to the general public, setting up an information booth at a spot with dense traffic of pedestrians in an inner-city area could provide an opportunity to raise awareness about the role of the financial system and the central banks, to inform about the impact high-level decisions taken in remote suites can have on the everyday lives of citizens and how everybody can be affected by the volatility of the globalized financial system. Instead, the message to take home was the robust advice not to spend more than you earn…. Unfortunately, this message was not addressing the key actors of finance but the consumers on their Saturday stroll from the shopping paradise to the Imperial Palace of Vienna on a sunny afternoon.