It’s rare these days to get though a four-minute commercial break without seeing at least one loan related advert, and even rarer to meet someone who isn’t – in some way or another – indebted to a corporate giant. Both are indicative of society’s increasingly warped relationship with money, but with the world of finance as abstract as it now is, how can people possibly be expected to relate to it in any real way? This abstraction is, of course, all part of the economic game, a game that plays by it’s own rules; our laissez-faire government sits back and watches banks pluck money out of thin air time and time again. That is until the fictitious pot runs dry (aka confidence in the banks runs dry) and the façade is broken, revealing a shambolic mess bearing little semblance to the perceived reality of finance.
This corrupt and chaotic state of affairs has long been the subject of London based artist Darren Cullen’s work, and his most recent project ‘Pocket Money Loans’ takes that interest to it’s (il)logical extreme. In an unlikely collusion of the economy and art worlds, the work takes form in a fully functioning loan shop in North London. It’s got everything; walls lined with promotional posters, kiddy sized table and chairs, cuddly toys, cartoons and bowls of sweets – even a trampoline. It’s a child’s dream play area, and coincidentally the perfect place for them to grab a quick loan. We took a trip down to the shop to have a chat with Cullen and find out why the worlds of finance and advertising inspire him so much.
Talk us through the concept behind Pocket Money Loans, where did it come from?
I’ve always had an interest in child targeted advertising and how unethical it is, because children aren’t even aware of the manipulation tactics at play. Payday loan advertisements have always seemed to me the most egregious example; it’s advertising something that’s clearly very dangerous. I’m also quite interested in the idea of corporations thinking 10 or 20 years ahead with their marketing and thinking about their future consumers. In Neuromarketing it’s called the first imprint; the first time you have a positive experience with a brand it stays with you throughout your life. The whole point of advertising and marketing in general is to bypass people’s conscious brains to make them respond in a ‘buying’ way, if you can get them when their brains are barely even formed, well – bingo.
It’s quite disconcerting when you step back and look at it all, that this is occurring constantly, and is all completely legal – supported even. Is that what drew you towards the topic initially, the desire to address something that is fundamentally corrupt?
Kind of, the idea for the shop came about after seeing places like Speedy Cash and Oakham Loans advertising their payday loans to children, using kangaroo mascots and cartoons and stuff. I just thought, if they’re directing their advertising towards children, why not take it the natural conclusion and well, offer them loans as well. And what’s interesting is people were more outraged at the actual act of offering a loan, and totally overlooked the questionable marketing strategies.
So far have people’s reactions been what you expected, or have you been surprised by anything?
Loads of people thought it was a real loan company, which I suppose I expected. But I heard someone say what was the most depressing thing is that people were falling for it because it’s so close to the truth, it could actually be that surprising if it was a real loan company. Because if I was actually doing this for real – offering loans to children – and the financial sector was actually regulated and didn’t have all these predatory companies being able to charge and do whatever they like, this would seem a bit daft and too ridiculous. But with things the way they are, you know, it’s not.
When did you come up with the concept?
I think it was around two years ago after I’d been inside an Oakham Loans, and saw they had all these cartoons in the window and bowls of sweets on the counter – it all just got me thinking, they’re effectively grooming the next generation of loaners. And I’ve been kind of kicking myself I haven’t done it sooner, ‘cause more and more people have been talking about it – they even tried to get a law passed to ban payday adverts on children television, but it was rejected.
They do that?!
Right in the middle of their cartoons! ‘Cause the thing is, if you advertise once to a child, they’ll advertise ten times to their parents. (Money Saving Expert) Martin Lewis did a report, and found cases where parents were telling their kids they couldn’t afford a toy or trip to Disneyland of whatever, and they were saying ‘why don’t you get a loan from Wonga.com.’ The culture has changed so much since our parents generation when debt was only really associated with gamblers and alcoholics. But now, it’s been so normalized – it’s rare to meet someone who hasn’t got a loan in some form or another, either an overdraft or credit card or student loan. And the whole point of it is to keep the economy expanding, but it’s pretty much reached its limit in terms of what consumers can afford. So with wages stagnating the only other option is to go into debt in order to buy more stuff. Have you heard of Strike Loans?
No, who are they?
Well companies sell on people’s debts for pennies on the pound; if they get £15 back off a £100 debt they’ve made a profit. Strike Debt are raising money to go and buy peoples debt and then just writing it off. I think it’s a genius idea, because we’ve still got this idea that there’s a moral obligation to pay debt back, but it means nothing – banks basically invent the money they lend. A bank can lend out £4,000 for every £1,000 it actually has in its coffers. So it basically just makes up three of those four thousand and then it gets paid back in real money, and you think ‘ah, right’ so that’s how inflation happens then.
This project has made it possible to make people aware of the absurd reality of loans and moneylenders, is that what you hoped for – to pass on some knowledge?
Yeah, I guess so, in a kind of roundabout way. It’s interesting as a few people have come in here thinking it was an adult loan company and been after a loan, and I’ve chatted to them about it other options like Credit Union or Fair Finance.
So you’re trying to recommend something that’s a bit safer?
Yeah, something bit less evil. But the thing is – after chatting to these people – you realise they know exactly how dangerous and ridiculously overpriced these payday loans are, but they just don’t have any other choice in the matter. And that’s the thing, by the government letting the market fill in these gaps in our economy; they’re just snaring loads of people in massive amounts of debt. Instead of compassionate, state institutions that help people when they’re on their arse, there are predatory companies coming in and making profit out of peoples misery.
This is clearly an issue you’re very passionate about, so is there a link between this project and your previous work?
Sort of yeah, I was actually studying advertising before I had a pre-emptive mid life crisis in my early twenties (laughs) and changed to fine art, so the interest has always been there in some sense. I also find it fascinating that people have just been born and they’re slammed straight into capitalism – children are sort of the most human; they’re humans before all this shit happens to them (laughs). So the focus on children has been present in previous works, like the Action Man dolls, and the Baby has a Baby doll. I guess I’m interested in the fact a lot of child focused marketing is all about targeting products that used to be for older children at younger and younger children.
What are you hoping will come out of this work, what’s the incentive behind it – do you want to do something good for society?
(Laughs) well, I’m pessimistic whether anything can really change, but it’s better than doing nothing. Generally if I’ve had an idea and I think it’s funny and it attacks something that I’ve been annoyed about for a while, then the motivation is just to do it, so it’s cathartic for me. I do a lot of it because it makes me laugh, I guess it’s sort of like visual masturbation in that sense – I’m doing it for my own pleasure.
Pocket Money Loans has unfortunately now finished its temporary occupation of The Atom Gallery at 77 Stroud Green Road. However merchandise from the store, and further information on the artist and his previous works are available at http://www.spellingmistakescostlives.com/
You can find out more about Eleanor Taylor-Davis and her work at www.eleanortaylordavis.com