Volume XI, Issue 28 ~ July 10-16, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

There’s a Man Inside that Machine
I wouldn’t use an ATM machine unless they paid me

Doner created a whole world of tiny bankers toiling in ATMs to convince Equitable Bank customers they could trust a machine with their money.
— Business Section of the Sunday Sun, June 22, ’03,

If the truth be known, there’s more truth to the mention of tiny bankers toiling inside ATMs than the public realizes. I know of at least one, and he was not only miserly but also promptly took his money back.

Also, if the truth be known, had viewers of the first commercials promoting automatic tellers been aware of a few behind-the-scenes scenarios, banking could be different today. Much different. Nobody would trust the damned things.

The above quote about ATMs came in The Sun’s reporting the news that the advertising agency W.B. Doner & Co. is leaving Charm City after a presence of 48 years. What a loss for Baltimore’s prestige, not to mention its payroll — and the stipends doled out to independent talent who performed in the thousands of commercials the agency produced locally.

“Talent” is what they call those names and faces you see and hear in commercials. It’s a name used within the trade. I didn’t coin it, so don’t accuse me of bragging when I mention I was among the “talent” booked for what I recall was the first Maryland TV commercial promoting an automated teller booth.

ATM Averse
You know what? I haven’t used one since. When First National (now Allfirst) moved into Riviera Beach more than a decade ago, I took out an account. Part of the deal was I could use the ATM for nothing, for a while at least.

Anything that operates via computer intimidates me — including myself, who operates a computer to write this weekly column. So after a few tries, assisted personally by the bank manager, I gave up. If ever I’m carjacked and ordered upon threat of my life to withdraw via ATM a couple thousand bucks, I’ll tell you what: I would be about to meet my maker.

First, there wouldn’t be a couple thousand bucks in the account. Second, if there were, I wouldn’t even know my pin number, never mind how to coax cash from that big machine so overwhelming in size at the door to the local bank. I’d just say ‘go ahead and shoot.’

These latest automated teller monstrosities don’t have, when needed, anyone hidden inside them to help out a fellow with a big Glock pressed against his noggin. It’s not like back when Equitable was, as I recall, the first Maryland bank to promote the concept — and sneaked a banker practically inside an ATM. And therein lies a story.

Once, They Paid Me
State Comptroller Louis Goldstein, myself and a few others with recognizable faces a couple of decades ago were chosen as talent in a series of one-man commercials introducing the big innovation in banking.

The deal was that in each commercial, there would be only one person — one easily identified by the public — and he was to be attired in garb not associated with his niche in the community. They weren’t identified on the film or in the voice-overs. The idea was to get viewers to ask ‘Could that be …’ as the commercial talked about the convenience of automated banking.

I had to go out and buy a business suit, seeing that about all I’ve ever had is fishing clothes, and in the commercial I was to portray a businessman making a hefty withdrawal from Equitable’s new do-it-yourself banking device.

The suit was only about a hundred bucks, and TV talent fee minimums were then $360, so I’d make $260 bucks free and clear — and also have on hand a dark suit if called upon to be a pallbearer. That’s hard to beat; a few minutes work, no written script to follow, a director would shout “It’s a take,” and I’d be on my way. Maybe they’d forget to ask for a return of the greenbacks I withdrew.

At least that’s the way it was supposed to work. After a few walk-thrus outside a building (which incidentally wasn’t a bank) at Cross Keys, I was set to perform, then be on my way. I got the word and cameras were rolling, but not the automated teller. It wouldn’t cough up any dough.

I know you can appreciate that. It’s happened to you at some time or other when you needed cash to pay for a pizza delivery or some other emergency. That’s bad enough, but when an ATM doesn’t work in a commercial, you ought to be around a snobbish producer, an impatient director, a cameraman who has another shoot scheduled elsewhere in an hour and a “gofer” whose stomach tells him it’s past lunch time.

Add to that some big-wig banker who has to stick around to OK the final ‘take’ before he can get back to the bank to close a multi-million-dollar deal for which he was already late. Picture a Chinese fire drill; that’s what things were like out there at Cross Keys.

Within minutes came a technician, but he couldn’t get the machine to dish out moola. I began to think of big money — another 360 bucks I would be due, seeing I was there and ready at talent call time as required by AFTRA-SAG contracts. If it was rescheduled, I’d have $620 plus that new suit, which incidentally was tax deductible.

Everybody was pacing around in circles, looking at their watches and probably saying things best unheard by my wife Lois and teenage daughter Turee, who arrived with me — not to watch talent in action, but to see what I looked like in a business suit — then to help me spend some of the talent fee.

But when money is involved, bankers, directors, producers, cameramen and such don’t give up easily. Not at the price it takes to do a 30-second spot. The banker had an idea, and everyone was beckoned to join a big circle around him — everyone but me.

Arms were waved, fingers pointed, the cameraman took some ‘dry’ shots and things were abuzz. Finally, they figured it might be to their advantage to deal me in on the stacked deck. I can’t recall whether I was sworn to secrecy, but it was made clear that talent doesn’t divulge secrets of the trade.

Somehow or other, they had figured a way for the banker to hide between the ATM and the building, then hand me the cash through a slot after I pushed a few buttons.

But I guess this guy of high finance wasn’t familiar with a short stack of paltry $20 bills — he probably handled only checks in the millions — and we had to do take after take until he could get a couple hundred bucks in my hands without his hands being seen.

Until the final take, he didn’t let me out of his sight. True story.

My commercial led the series, as I recall, and once when it popped up on the TV at home, I watched and wondered if any other viewer anywhere (other than those involved in the filming that day) harbored any fears that one of the machines could fail them in a time of need as the pizza delivery driver burned rubber driving off with cheese and the works still in hand because a stingy ATM failed to supply the demanded cash. Think of that hungry family.

Is there something about truth in advertising in all of this? I can give some hints for an answer on that some other time. When I confess how the foam got on my mug of beer — in another commercial.



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Last updated July 10, 2003 @ 1:13am