Credit card commercials traditionally center on leisurely, aspirational scenes. A commercial for MasterCard’s Masterpass goes, “Modern life deserves a modern way to pay” as a well-heeled mother, daughter, and the latter’s boyfriend dine at the Cheesecake Factory while making plans to go shoe shopping. Visa is currently promising a free movie ticket as long as you order two others on Fandango. A recent Citi Double Cash card ad shows a young couple sitting with a contractor, planning a home renovation.
Then there’s Goldman Sachs. In ads debuting Thursday promoting the company’s new consumer-loan division, Marcus by Goldman Sachs, the bank displays a grasp of American reality that appears to elude most of its competitors. The Marcus loans are pitched at people seeking to consolidate credit card debt, offering lower fixed rates on their personal loans. And what, you ask, does Marcus by Goldman Sachs believe has caused people to rack up such bills? Nights out on the town? Designer clothes? No. One commercial shows how borrowing money can help cover the costs of such things as a broken leg, busted water heater, or smashed car windshield. “Debt happens,” the ad proclaims. “It’s how you get out that counts.” Another lingers on a personal calendar with such entries as “electricity bill due” and “tuition due.”
You know the ugly stats. According to the Federal Reserve, just under half of us could come up with $400 in cash from our own reserves in the event of an emergency. Health care expenses are a leading cause of bankruptcy and remain high, with out-of-pocket costs rising by more than 50 percent since 2010 for people with employer-provided insurance. A majority of students graduating from college in 2016 borrowed money to do so. Household incomes haven’t kept up with the things we cannot live without, and all too many of us are taking advantage of easy credit of the sort offered by Marcus in order to bridge the gap.
Dustin Cohn, head of brand management for Marcus, told the New York Times that one of the campaign’s goals is to “destigmatize debt.” That’s certainly a laudable ambition, especially since so many of us equate an inability to keep up with bills with moral failure. But there’s also something depressing about simply accepting the fact that we’ll need to resort to consumer debt to simply pay the bills. Other countries believe it’s inhumane to assume their citizens have thousands of dollars at the ready, and their safety nets reflect it. But not in the United States, where a study released this week by the New England Journal of Medicine determined that almost 25 percent of people who went to an emergency room in their health insurance network still received bills they did not expect. The average surprise medical bill was more than $900, and the researchers even found one person who got a surprise tab for $19,603. At least these poor souls now have Marcus to help them pay their bills!
Anyway, bully for Goldman Sachs. At least they don’t blame the victim. But shame on us for accepting this state of affairs.