Alexandra Shimo

An Ode To Ozymandian Banks

Ben Kingsley, “Ozymandias” (for USB, 1996)

Today, bankers are collectively referred to as “debt-fuelled and gluttonous” — they are seen as a group of greedy has-beens, the moneyed scum of society. But it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, banks could advertise with unwavering confidence, boosting their lifelong hegemony. They could afford to hire some of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the 20th century like John Geilgud and Ben Kingsley to put out their message. The could champion themselves as timeless, without people wondering which government would need to prop them up. They could link themselves to greatness without appearing like foolish parody.

This commercial for Union Bank of Switzerland is a charming tribute to those times. Everything about it says aloof, unchanging institution, a message that banks today would likely studiously strive to avoid. The closer “Here Today, Here Tomorrow,” is sweetly anachronous; what bank today would claim a definite, hegemonic future?

You could argue, like those who commented on YouTube, that the bank has missed Shelley’s point. The poem “Ozymandias” pours scorn on our desire for vainglory, claiming that immortality is a fruitless dream. What’s here today is usually gone by tomorrow, especially if your financial advisor is anything like mine.

And yet, even after the financial crash of 2008, USB and Ozymandias would live on. The bank and its advertisements are still here, and I write about them because they are good enough to deserve commentary. Shelley’s poem lives on too; and it’s read brilliantly by Ben Kingsley. Even Ozymandias is with us, albeit as a character in The Watchmen — a Spandex-wearing, effete actor with a messed up sense of morality. That’s worthy of greatness, isn’t it?

– Alexandra Shimo

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Alexandra Shimo is the author of “The Environment Equation” and "Invisible North, and co-author of "Up Ghost River: A Chief's Journey through the Turbulent Waters of Native History"—a memoir of Edmund Metatawabin, residential school survivor and former First Nations chief. Alex studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University, and did a Master’s at The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York. A former producer for CBC radio and editor at Maclean’s, Canada’s largest current affairs magazine, she is passionate about journalism and social justice, and pursues these interests through her volunteer work, and her books and essays about history, poverty and human rights. More Alexandra Shimo here.