For most of the last week, Ally, a financial services based in Detroit, MI, hosted a sponsored island in Animal Crossing. The weeklong “activation”—a marketer’s term for the actual execution of a long-planned marketing campaign—kicked off with a guided tour by charming and affable streamer Kang, who directed his (mostly) delighted audience of 15,000 or so around the island in the hours before it was open to the public. Ally Island was, admittedly, an impressive bit of creativity under constraint, using Animal Crossings’ assets to showcase homes, boats, cars, a playable-ish golf course, and “Little Detroit”. (Ally is descended, through a century-long mess of mergers, acquisitions, restructures, buyouts, sell-offs, and rebrandings, from General Motors’ car financing wing). But the main draw of Ally Island was the ludicrous 1,000 bells it offered for turnips, a good enough exchange rate for serious Animal Crossing fans that the island was eventually shut down early as a result of congestion.
Ally is a bank. It’s other things too, which we’ll come back to, but the main thing advertised during Friday’s stream were the most basic of banking services—checking, savings, car financing, etc. As Kang toured his audience through the island, he regaled them with personal stories about the services Ally offers and how those helped him and his wife achieve (what else) financial freedom—or, at least, the illusion of it that cheap debt offers. And with boats, manors, golf courses, and cars on display, the island itself was a catalogue of symbols for wealth—or, more accurately, what prudent wealth management can get you. The motto for the event summed things up nicely: “Visit our island and see how to make your bells work smarter.”
Like most industries, banking has had to contend with the material and cultural shifts that have accompanied Millennials becoming a plurality of the American workforce. Not only are Millennials considerably more precarious at this point in our lives than our parents were due to the predictable effects of policy choices (and not avocado toast), but we also, per Gallup, give considerably less of a shit who we bank with. No doubt these are related. But this creates a marketing opportunity for “millennial-friendly” “all-digital” banks like Ally, which is the simplest reason as to why Ally Island exists. But the basics of banking is, to banks, really the tip of the “financial services” iceberg. Thanks to a lax regulatory environment that not even the 2008 crisis could rein in, most companies like Ally are engaged in both commercial banking and investment banking.
But if most workers (including Millennials) have to put their wages somewhere, it’s also true that Millennials haven’t taken to investing as readily as previous generations. There are obvious, material reasons for this, but, for Ally, those aren’t worth considering. What’ll make Millennials start investing is little more than the right messaging and a better user experience. As Ally’s “guide to investing” on its website puts it, “you’re hesitant. We get it.” “No,” this imagined reader might reply, glancing at a pile of barely-dented student loans, “I’m just poor.” Undeterred, Ally offers an electronic trading platform, mere swipes away from its standard-issue banking services, featuring “self-directed” and “automated” trading. It might not be as finely tuned as the fully gamified trading platform Robinhood—a genuinely horrifying collision of the worst impulses of Wall Street and Silicon Valley—but it’s pitched as an easy point of entry for the skittish, green Millennial investor. So you’re looking for Ally Island on a map, you’ll find it at the intersection of the financialization of games, and the gamification of finance.
It’s trite, by now, to point out that Animal Crossing is some kind of allegory/parody/critique (your pick) of finance capitalism, a term meant to define an era—our era—in which financial assets (CDOs, derivatives, futures, etc.) are more valuable than tangible ones. On one level, this makes Animal Crossing—he most approachable (and forgiving) “stalk market” in games, after all—a perfect venue for advertising something like Ally, whose value proposition is making trading stocks as painless as trading turnips. And not just Ally, but for the whole system of finance capitalism its product’s assumptions rests upon. Making “your bells work smarter” is a nice way of not having to think about the damages finance capitalism has wrought.
But there’s something more subtle at work here, too. “Before it’s an ad for shampoo or cat food or cola,” Ian Bogost observes, “every advertisement is first an ad for capitalism.” His point is that advertising doesn’t just sell you on a product—it sells you, in the first instance, on selling at all. It sells you on the way things are, alongside your (potential) place in that way that things are. Advertising always (also) tries to make a point about what a good consumer is. None of us, after all, emerge from the womb as acolytes of capitalism; we learn to spend, save, and sometimes spree. Consumption is culture; culture is consumption. But if millennials aren’t investing, they aren’t “good” consumers, at least from the perspective of a 360° financial services company. So to dismiss Ally Island as just an ad for Ally (though of course it’s also that) is to miss the deeper ideological work at play here. Ally Island, with Animal Crossing as its medium, defines how it believes millennial-consumers ought to act, their material circumstances be damned.
Whether or not this gamble works is an open question—great messaging is powerful, but it doesn’t put money in your pocket.