Actors like Alan Bates and Ben Kingsley read poetry and effuse elegance

By Mike Flaherty
Updated September 06, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Standing dourly erect in an ersatz sepulchral chamber, awash in a diffuse blue nimbus, actor Alan Bates intones from W.E. Henley’s poem ”Invictus”: ”In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud/Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed…”

Another installment of Masterpiece Theatre? Nay, it’s one in a series of ads for the Union Bank of Switzerland. Airing only on CNNfn and CNBC, NBC’s money-news cable channel, and aimed at highbrow financiers worldwide, the spots also feature equally pantheonic British actors Sir John Gielgud and Ben Kingsley reciting inspirational verse by Shakespeare and Shelley. Soft-sell ”perception” campaigns have long been used to sell jeans and sneakers, but the UBS ads (which never make spoken reference to the bank) mark a slick new high in financial flackdom; their tony ethereality makes hyper-urbane Infiniti spokesman Jonathan Pryce look like Jim Varney.

But what has all this poignancy got to do with banking? According to UBS project manager Vincenzo Travaglione, the readings chosen ”talk about commitment, self-confidence, honesty, sincerity, and a determination to deliver. We’re saying, here’s a company with long-term relevance.”

The entire campaign cost $1.5 million to produce; of that, the actors earn a relatively small fee (one reason greedier Yanks weren’t used). But why only men? ”The choice of spokesperson was driven by the authors of the chosen poems, all of whom happened to be male,” says Travaglione, who promises actresses will appear in future spots.

Martin Spillmann, creative director of Young & Rubicam’s Zurich office, ascribes the campaign’s popularity to its ”tone and manner. I think people are honored that someone isn’t saying ‘Hey, I want your money!’ It’s not this flashy, glitzy, trendy thing. It’s timeless.”