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Withdraw $1 from an ATM (and pay a $4 fee)
Shape-shifters surround us these days, whether in the guise of sneaky murderous robots chasing down Shia Labeouf and Josh Duhamel in the Transformer films, moody high schoolers morphing into werewolves to avoid health class in the "Twilight" saga or an Austin bike racer trying to convince us that Tour de France titles cause temporary amnesia.
Banks also seem to be embracing their inner werewolf lately with advertising narratives that shape-shift between friendly human financial institution and automated robotic convenience.
In late December, TD Bank ended its Kelly Ripa-Regis Philbin ad campaign, replacing the chipper-cantankerous tag team with new ads bearing the slogan "Bank Human Again." In these TV spots, a lone customer at a competing bank is subjected to ridiculous and capricious bank policies (i.e., 6 inches of pen chain), all dictated by a disembodied computerized voice. No fear of that at TD Bank, the commercial assures us, invoking those fond memories of Kelly and Reeg schmoozing with the TD lobby crowd.
Across town, Chase and PNC are giving equal time to the 'bots in the hope that rolling out a few new ATM tricks will win your patronage.
Their new "Self-Service Teller" applies a Transformer makeover to the garden-variety ATM by enabling human customers to receive cash in $5, $1 and even coin denominations. At other ATMs, the smallest change you'll receive is a $10 bill, with most dispensing only $20 bills.
So yes, it's true: You can now withdraw $1 from an ATM -- and potentially pay a $4 ATM fee for the privilege. That's the average fee these days for using an out-of-network bank's machine.
In Chase's view, the Self-Service Teller helps customers accomplish "90-percent-plus" of common banking transactions, including cashing checks to the penny, without having to interface with a human being. At six pilot locations, the robo-teller reduced the waiting lines to see a human teller by 40 percent. Good news for robots; not so good for human tellers.
But there's nothing like hard times to make banking personal again. Since 2008, you couldn't cast enough warm-fuzzy tellers and satisfied soccer moms to fill all the TV spots for "your hometown bank."
I suppose the re-emergence of the old high-touch high-tech advertising trope is a good sign for the economy. Focus groups must surely be telling financial institutions that we're no longer scared to death to set foot inside a bank branch. Just the subtext of the Self-Service Teller -- that we would need to cash a check on the fly -- would suggest that we have some place to fly to, such as a job.
Still, I can't help but be troubled by an ATM that spits out singles and change. Because as every action fan knows, it is precisely such innocuous nickel-and-diming that often precedes the arrival of evil overlords who can imitate a Buick.
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