Gloria and her money, analyticized

This isn’t going to help with America’s statistical deficits.

Gloria is the name of a character who appears in some ads for Well Fargo financial advising services. I’m guessing she’s a little shy of 66 years old — partly because of the nature of her family situation, and also because the last spike in popularity for the name Gloria was in 1945, when it reached #23 among American girls born.

Anyway, she’s standing on her deck overlooking the beach. She’s thinking of a pie chart in which expenses (son’s medical school; trip to Paris), time (with grandson; volunteering), and lifelong goals (run a marathon) somehow add up to 100% of the pie.

That image is part of a dynamic montage. But if you poke around the website you can find a flyer version of Gloria’s story. For some reason her mental pie chart has changed now, with an additional pie slice added for “remodel kitchen.” Naturally, the rest of the slices are smaller now.

The copy makes no mention of her family situation, but speaks only of “getting you to your dreams.” Is she single? Black women do have lower marriage rates than average, but more than 80% of Black women in her generation have been married. And she has a son who’s going to medical school, apparently one of her dreams.

The story becomes more clear (even though the picture isn’t) after checking Gloria’s appearance in my print edition of the New Yorker. Now she’s dropped the kitchen remodel from her dreams and added “care for parents.”

But what of a husband? In the New Yorker copy we finally read: “Between paying for her son’s medical school, working, and volunteering, Gloria has a lot going on in her life. But she knows someday it will be just her and her husband, James. With the help of their Financial Advisor, they are preparing for all the things they want to do.”

Now it’s just strange that her husband — who will someday be all there is in her pie chart — is not reflected in her minds-eye chart at all. It’s especially odd given that her life just got more complicated — with not only a grandson she spends time with and a son she supports, but also parents she cares for. (She no longer needs to run a marathon to impress me!)

This is either a very sophisticated kind of marketing — in which different marks in different contexts are fed highly specialized images and narratives — or it’s just a sloppy and random packaging of stereotypical assumptions.

Is this an odd juxtaposition of selfless dreams (volunteer, grandson, care for parents) and self-centered aims (travel, remodel) — or just a well-balanced retirement?

Regardless, it represents the sad degradation of our numeracy, where things are just randomly turned into charts, generating a vague sense of precision for no substantial reason, just tipping us a little further toward noise, away from signal.

Here’s another example, from that busy section of front matter in the New York Times magazine, in which the size of the circles may represent the number of times each story has been blogged. But what does the overlap in the circles represent? Nothing. It’s just there to justify labeling the figure “analytics.” The image provides no more information than a five-item bullet list.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Gloria and her money, analyticized

  1. Lisa

    Interesting analysis. I always read these types of ads as supposed to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside–you can have your dreams and tend to your responsibilities also! Most people don’t have that kind of control over their future or their finances but we all wish they did.

    It models this sort of future directed thinking people do, no matter how in the economic hole they are, they imagine some segment left for going to Paris.

    I can imagine a parody of this with the kind of existential terrors of real life in the pie chart instead ‘pay for long term care in event of alzheimers’ …’bail out wayward child…’…’recover from housing price collapse…’

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  2. Ness Blackbird

    It is interesting, isn’t it? How financial and non-financial goals are all conflated. Yet, to me, it paints a picture of an active, fulfilling later life. I guess the non-financial goals are supposed to become possible because Gloria has time for them, and the financial ones because of the wizardry of Wells Fargo.

    It seems this is how retirement-type services are always advertised, moreover — with very vague promises. I suppose the real message is something like this: “come on in and talk to us about your retirement prospects, it’s really not as bad as you think.”

    And many people really don’t dream too much about the spouses…they see them every day :)

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  3. Jessi Roemer

    Philip, will you write a longer essay about this? It is so interesting — I know it’s a blog post and you’re just raising questions, but I’m so curious to see where you would take this. With admiration, Jessi

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  4. The whole idea of a consciously articulated — even planned — retirement, is the quintessential achievement of social class, the final stage of an efficacious life. The people who buy such a service are relatively rich, naturally, but the company is also marketing their service as that lifestyle. You might be rich, sure, but are you serenely looking out over the horizon, with your goals and dreams carefully laid proportioned out?

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