In the now nearly forgotten past, before most bank profits came from risky speculation and taxpayer bailouts and those institutions still lived or died by their ability to attract depositors, customers who opened checking accounts were often given toasters as tokens of appreciation.
Fast forward to present times and, though toasters are not as common, some customers are still finding themselves walking out of the bank with a prize, a glass of champagne, a sweater, a commemorative coin or a nice balloon, for example. The difference is that those people got their gifts for closing -- not opening -- bank accounts.
That topsy-turvy scenario is the handiwork of creative activists across Europe and the United States who, fed up with what they see as endemic corruption in the banking industry and fed by scandal after searing scandal, have recently made it a point to launch impromptu flash mobs, suddenly pouring into bank branches to reward customers who close their bank accounts.
Among the most notable: a flash mob staged to protest against Spanish banking giant Bankia -- where inappropriate accounting hid tens of billions in losses that necessitated an international bailout -- saw a coordinated group of unemployed Spaniards mill around the bank lobby waiting until a customer approached the desk to close her account. Once the customer was finished, throngs of cheering protesters danced their way into the bank and began an impromptu disco party. Amid silver confetti and a blaring boombox, the stunned customer was given a glass of champagne and carried out of the bank atop the crowd.
The video the event went viral, and helped fuel a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #CierraBankia that prompted people to cut their ties to the bank throughout late June.
Another good example from Spain, where eye-popping unemployment of 24.6 percent and a prolonged, painful recession caused by a housing bubble have made resentment against the financial industry an understated given, involves artist collective FLO6X8, which has invaded bank rotundas to treat random customers to a traditional flamenco performance, singing at depositors to close their accounts while an impromptu crowd step-dances and clicks castañuelas above their heads.
More recently, following the rate-fixing scandal at British giant Barclays plc, activists have massed online under the #ByeBarclays and #MoveYourMoney hashtags, organizing events where angry Britons have spontaneously gathered to post notes on bank branches about why they no longer wish to keep their deposits there. Other events have included flash mobs where Robin Hood-customed activists have given bank customers commemorative coins for a pledge to close their accounts.
Perhaps the most boldfaced flash-mob-cum-bank-protest to occur recently, however, was in Naples, where Italian activists suddenly invaded a branch of BNL, a subsidiary of French banking giant, BNP Paribas, and stripped down to their underwear, tossing their clothes at amused customers.
If the bank wants us to end up naked, so be it, the protesters declared, but we will not pay for the crisis.
Of course, using flash mobs to protest, and specifically to protest banks, is not particularly a novelty. In late 2011, when the Occupy movement was in full swing, protesters regularly sent out online blasts to have impromptu gatherings inside bank branches, making the news in San Francisco, Atlanta and Brussels. But in contrast to those 2011 flash mobs, where speeches and rally cries made them closer to a conventional protest, recent actions seem to have emphasized the element of the absurd and playful. These flash mobs have left their metaphorical pitchforks at home.
Exemplifying that mood change, a May flash mob organized by New York performance artist Zefrey Throwell saw a group of people suddenly gather to rope off and play ping pong in front of Bank of America's Midtown headquarters as an act of protest against the bank.
It's very lighthearted, is how Throwell described the protest to the New York Times.
Not that banks have not used the power of whimsical, unexpected mass gathering to push their own PR. A recent example: to shoot a tear-jerker of an ad in May, Spanish Banco Sabadell organized a flash mob of chamber music performers to descend upon a crowded public plaza on a weekend afternoon. After a little girl put a coin in a lonely violinist's hat, he began performing a part of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Within minutes, 99 other performers joined him in an emotional crescendo.
Now talk about crying all the way to the bank.