6 Jun 2014

American Express creates documentary

American Express has created a documentary to highlight financial exclusion and draw attention to the millions of Americans that are struggling to manage their financial needs.

'Spent: Looking for Change' is a film that explores the plight of Americans who live without the ‘basic’ financial options that many people take for granted.

These are the people the banks ignore, the “un-banked” or “under-served”, those with poor credit ratings or no credit ratings at all, who are forced to turn to pawn shops, payday loans, cheque-cashing and other alternative high-fee and high-interest financial services in order to meet their monthly financial needs.

American Express claims that $89 billion is spent each year on fees and interest via these services, causing further headaches and spiralling debt problems.

The 40-minute documentary film aims to highlight financial exclusion while creating and encouraging dialogue about the issue in a bid to promote change. American Express hopes the film will help improve financial inclusion, and to introduce people to its banking solutions, which includes prepaid card products Bluebird and Serve.

Dan Schulman, group president for enterprise growth at American Express, said: “We hope to spark a national dialogue about re-imagining financial services as we know it today. Change is possible and we believe financial exclusion is a solvable problem, but it’s going to take lots of people working together, raising awareness, and investing in initiatives that help to create better, more affordable financial solutions for everyone.”

The documentary features Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) as executive producer, it was narrated by Tyler Perry and directed by Derek Doneen.

It is available on YouTube, Hulu, online news hub The Young Turks and on a dedicated microsite.  


This is a fairly sobering documentary that taps into a genuine problem that is largely unknown or ignored by the majority of people fortunate enough to not be in the situation.

The statistics are significant:  70 million Americans lack access to traditional financial system. Over 30 million Americans use cheque cashers every year. Under-served Americans spend the same amount on fees and interest as the average American family spends on groceries.

The documentary does a great job of getting viewers onside early with this quote from Jonathan Mintz, CEO, cities for financial empowerment fund: “The picture of the financially unstable is a picture of you and me, but for a couple of little breaks.” 

The documentary is well-made documentary with great storytelling and it sheds light on a genuine problem. It highlights the issue and through a variety of peoples experiences but what it doesn’t really do is provide solutions. It mentions a couple of new technologies that are paving the way but only in passing.

It also makes no mention of American Express until the closing credits.

The aim of the documentary is to get people to share the documentary and start a conversation about the issue of financial exclusion. In line with this the film directs people to a dedicated microsite, which feature information, tools and links to educate consumers about how to become financially ready and sound.

The site also features information about American Express’ new services Serve, a pre-paid card and Bluebird, a cheque and debit alternative, which is available online and at Walmart.

American Express have said the issue of financial exclusion is one that it feels strongly about. American Express told Fast Company that by creating a tech platform that provides the services of a bank branch it will be able to change American Express from being “an exclusive brand to the mass affluent, to an inclusive brand that creates a value proposition”.

The strategy for Amex is straight forward, American Express needed to create the conversation about Financial Exclusion and the shine a spotlight on the un-banked in order to get its brand and products into the space and top of mind in the discussion.

By creating the documentary American Express gets to own the conversation and begin to tell the story in a manner that suits the brand, without applying a heavy-handed advertising approach that might deter of alienate potential customers. The brand looked to a documentary and a branded entertainment approach to do this in a bid to ensure they could reach the target audience, why no doubt switch off from messages from banks and credit card companies.

But that’s not all. Amex has also launched a financial inclusion initiative at SXSW this year, which aims to fund promising start-ups that are focused on financial inclusion products, and it is also launching the Financial Innovation Lab to sponsor research focused on financial inclusion and aims to tie the research into new products.

Clearly Amex is looking to set the agenda and get financial exclusion on the table as an issue people can buy into, as well as looking for ways to ensure the company benefits from both the issue and the resolution.

As a financial institution, American Express needs people to be able to apply for and be approved for its credit cards. Too many excluded people means less people getting cards. By providing an easy access solution for the “un-banked” Amex also benefits from acquiring new customers who can then be upsold to its other products.

American Express is notorious for its fees, so there is also the ambition to change the brand perception from exclusive to inclusive. The brand also benefits from the positive sentiment of highlighting a genuine issue and exercising corporate responsibility. It is also leading the conversation and therefore owning the issue of financial inclusion. 

The benefits don’t end there. By funding start-ups and research into financial inclusion, the company will also benefit from being in on the ground floor of new technology and applications aiming to solve the problem. 

It also ensures that Amex is up-to-speed with all the issues and latest developments surrounding financial exclusion and therefore perfectly poised to respond and or take proactive measures to stay top of mind. 

It is easy to see how strategically beneficial ‘Spent’ is to American Express, there is however one issue that bothers me: this is not so much a documentary as a really, really long ad. 

Amex have got experts on board to create a slick and well made documentary. The storytelling is well done and everything is great. Until you realize its been made by American Express, and that's where things unravel a little. 

The presence of a brand instantly undermines the worthiness of the film and starts to raise questions about the legitimacy of the film. Perhaps it's the style with which it is done that causes the problem. Rather than being upfront and beginning with American Express presents, the style which most brands opt for, the branding is hidden and tucked away, which makes it seem shady. 

Choosing to do it this way might have seemed the best way to get the message out there however I feel it undermines the authenticity and legitimacy of the fil as a documentary. Once this lens is applied othin the plight of the under-served. 

When you consider Credit Card debt remains one of the biggest causes of personal debt and according to CNN, the average American household has more than $15,000 in credit card debt, things start to smell a little fishy. 

American Express' decision to omit this one major detail is clearly about controlling the conversation, the agenda and sticking to the brand's strategy, and it's not as though they have done anything wrong, as such. However, the act of omission has created an air of suspicion which helps to raise questions about what else they might not be telling consumers. 

Clearly this is why Amex has been keen to refer to 'Spent' as a 'docu-ad' rather than branded entertainment. As Schulman tols the New York Times: "The issue in general is one that we believe in pretty passionately. There is this saying, 'It's expensive to be poor,' and usually the less money you have the more it costs to manage it. But talking about 'financial exclusion' can fall flat and tends to not have the impact that great storytelling can have. We wanted to create a documentary that brings to life this story in a way that a print ad or an article could not." 

American Express have created an excellent piece of storytelling that sucessfully achieves the company's strategic objective to start the conversation about financial exclusion and put the brand firmly at the centre of the agenda. However, the treatment could be viewed to undermine the story and issues with transparency raise questions about the project's authenticity.


Strategically American Express have achieved the objective of getting the issue of financial exclusion into the public domain and put the brand at the centre of the conversation. However it is yet to be seen what impact the film will have on the brand. This is certainly one to watch with interest.

I give it 2 stars. 



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