Last month the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing brought out a new $20 bill. Curiously, the debut of this redesigned piece of currency was accompanied by a marketing campaign _ at a reported cost of $32-million. That's a decent budget and includes events, print ads, some Web goodies, and even TV spots. (You can see the commercials at the bureau's www.moneyfactory.com. You can also play games designed to teach kids about the new twenties; there's even an "interactive bill.") The ads have been in heavy rotation, and they raise an obvious question: Why bother to advertise money itself?
In one spot, a guy with glasses gets some dough from an ATM, but the upbeat, swingy background music hints that this no ordinary withdrawal. And indeed, the machine spits out a stack of new $20 bills. He pauses and holds one up to study it closely (always a good idea to raise a twenty in the air and lose yourself in thought on a city sidewalk). An announcer says, "You can see right away that things are different." A smile of satisfaction creeps over the guy's face. "We've added color," the announcer says, "and changed the portrait." We follow Mr. Glasses as he buys some flowers, paying with a new $20 bill that seems to vaguely impress the vendor. The announcer mentions improved "security features" and assures us that the new twenty, like the old one, is worth 20 bucks. He then concludes with the new money's tag line: "Safer, smarter, more secure."
The second ad, titled "Sleight of Hand," has either the same guy or a very similar-looking guy (I really can't tell) buying some CDs and getting a $20 bill in change. "Ohh, the new twenty," he says. Then, as the announcer tells us about details like the "embedded security thread," the guy does an elaborate and improbable series of special-effects-aided tricks with the bill, spinning it on his finger and so on (the soundtrack here is a funky guitar and record scratches). At the end, the clerk is so impressed he applauds. Glasses leaves, and the woman behind him steps up to the counter and says, with an oddly lusty air, "Can I get a new twenty?"
I don't know about you, but after seeing these ads, I'd be willing to pay up to $20 for one of those hip new bills.
In fairness, while the campaign seems as though it seeks to sell money _ a pointless exercise _ it's really designed to put everyone on notice that a change in currency is afoot: The new bill has some different color and design elements (to deter counterfeiters), but it's real, so don't freak out. Such messages are not unprecedented: The introduction of the euro a few years back was also accompanied by a massive "awareness" campaign. Continental promoters wanted 90 percent of the population of 12 countries to have seen 30-second TV spots at least twice.
But as it happens, a new $20 bill came into my possession not long ago, and the truth is the changes aren't really so shocking. Yes, there's a bit of color in the design, but it's hardly Monopoly money. In fact, after carrying my precious new bill around for a day, I decided to part with it in exchange for a pizza. "Check it out," I said to the counter guy, "It's one of the new twenties." He hadn't seen one before, and he spent roughly three seconds staring at it blankly before attempting to stuff it into the register. Not willing to let the moment go, I pointed out some of the differences. He said, "Hmm." And, insistently, gave me my change.
It was kind of anticlimactic. The woman behind me, for example, did not make a breathless request for the bill I had just given over; she ordered a sandwich. Maybe this is evidence of the campaign's effectiveness _ or maybe it's evidence that it wasn't particularly necessary. After all, there's not exactly an exchange-rate problem here, and the bottom line is that pretty much anyone who wants to participate in buying or selling things is going to have a strong motivation for accepting the new $20 bill. That motivation is: You have no choice. Here, finally, is a product that truly sells itself.
Rob Walker writes the Ad Report Card for Slate.