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Bus Line's One-Liners to Stop

Ads: Santa Monica Bank's humorous messages on the city's buses reach the end of the line.

December 01, 1999|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For two decades, the modest signs pasted on the back of Santa Monica's distinctive Big Blue Buses rarely failed to put a grin on motorists unlucky enough to be stuck behind them in traffic.

Every month there was a new joke or witty one-liner that served as an offbeat advertisement for the local, family-owned Santa Monica Bank.

"The name's Bond. Savings Bond," read one four years ago in a takeoff of a popular James Bond movie.

"Whatever the IRS doesn't take on the 15th, we will," advised another during April in the early 1990s.

"Make money the old-fashioned way. Borrow it," suggested a spoof of John Houseman's familiar early 1980s TV commercial.

But the final punch line is on the municipal fleet of 167 buses this morning in the 50-square-mile service area that includes Pacific Palisades, downtown Los Angeles and Los Angeles International Airport.

After 240 months, this one is likely to cause few smiles, however.

"After 20 years on the bus, we've reached our stop," the signs sadly announce.

What they don't say is that Santa Monica Bank has been absorbed by a larger financial institution and soon will disappear too. Its 16 local branches will become U.S. Bank branches in January and they will no longer advertise on the buses.

"I hate to see them go. These are one of the few things in the bombardment of ads we see every day that are really clever," longtime Santa Monica resident Beverly Kleiner said Tuesday as a Big Blue Bus rumbled past on Wilshire Boulevard.

Above its rear bumper was November's sign. It gave a hint of what was coming: "Eventually, everyone gets off the bus. Even us." it read.

There was sadness at the municipal bus terminal Tuesday as well.

"We're all waiting to see what the last one says," said John Catoe, the city's director of transportation. "We're going to miss them. And it was nice having 'Santa Monica Bank' on the back of Santa Monica buses,"

Transportation officials acknowledged that the bus signs occasionally stirred controversy over the years.

Cynthia Gibson, the bus line's marketing coordinator, laughed as she recalled complaints that the city was endorsing evil when a bus ad did a takeoff on a "Star Wars" line: "Build your own evil empire."

One feminist group burned bras in front of a bank branch in the mid-1980s after one bus banner read: "Girls just wanna have funds."

Pickets organized by a matchmaking company marched in front of the bank's Santa Monica Place branch after another read: "We handle more zeros than a dating service."

But most simply tickled funny bones:

"Old and wrinkled is beautiful. Especially in large denominations."

"Experts on the reproductive habits of the North American greenback."

"Go invest, young man."

"Was it his eyes? His lips? His jumbo CD?"

"The Loan Arranger. And Pronto."

About half of the one-liners were written by advertising executive Pat Robertson. For 15 years she handled the bank bus ads for three major ad agencies before starting her own Manhattan Beach firm, Bullseye Communications.

Bankers had a stodgy image when the ad campaign started, Robertson recalled Tuesday.

"We've tried to show them as human beings who can laugh at themselves," she said. "At the same time, we've tried to make traffic more bearable."

She tried to make each of the ads fit in with bank marketing strategy, Robertson said. When promoting building loans, for example, one ad read: "Every construction project could use a little greenery."

Some proposed one-liners never made it on the bus. Santa Monica Bank executives cringed at "Assets kissed daily." They flat-out vetoed "Congratulations on your settlement, Ivana Trump. We open at 10." after her widely publicized divorce from financier Donald Trump.

"But the bus cards did sort of reflect society and changes in our culture over the years. And they were effective in promoting the bank," Robertson said.

During their run, the ads won several major advertising industry awards. And two of them --"Save the clams" and "It's only money. (Yeah, right.)"--were featured in the 1994 movie "Speed."

As they contemplated saying goodbye to the bus banners, Westside residents were offering farewells to their local bank. For more than 60 years, the bank was family-run, officials say.

Two years ago another company purchased it but retained the Santa Monica name. The Minneapolis-based U.S. Bankcorp recently acquired the bank.

"I definitely hate to see Santa Monica Bank disappear," said customer Robert Anderson. "U.S. Bank doesn't have the same ring."

Santa Monica Bank President David Ranier predicted that locals will embrace the new services that the larger bank will bring, however. But he admitted he will miss the bus signs.

His bank got a lot of mileage out of the campaign over the years, he said.

More than 78 million bus miles, as a matter of fact.

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