Americans aren't referred to as Homo consumens for nothing. There is very little they don't understand about the almighty dollar except, perhaps, how to hold onto one.
Even so, as the US Treasury Department prepares to introduce a redesigned US$20 bill on Oct. 9, it isn't taking any chances that confusion over the bill's new look will interfere with commerce. And it is not relying on the standard government approach of public service booklets and brochures to get out the word.
The US Bureau of Engraving and Printing will spend US$33 million on advertising, marketing and education programs to promote the new bill, and it has hired a public relations firm and, in a first, a product placement firm and one of Hollywood's top talent agencies to put the US$20 bill on the publicity circuit. By the time the new bill joins the currency flow next month, it will have appeared virtually everywhere but on the ballot for California's recall election.
"We knew we couldn't rely on public service announcements and the news media alone to get the depth of information out about the bill's new design and security features," said Thomas A. Ferguson, the bureau's director.
"We needed to look at different avenues. And we knew from our research that people get a lot of their information from entertainment and television," he said.
The new US$20 bill, which is shaded with peach and blue, is the first US bill since 1905 to come in colors other than green and black. Although the additional color is subtle, it makes the bills more complex and harder to counterfeit, according to the US Secret Service, whose original mission when it was set up in 1865 was to fight counterfeiting.
Former US president Andrew Jackson still graces the front of the US$20 bill with his tousled hair and cape, although he appears to have had some work done around his eyes and chin. His portrait is larger than it is on the current bills, and the oval that has surrounded him for decades has been removed. In addition to the new subtle colors, which prompted comedian David Letterman to crack that the bill had been made over by the guys from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the bill also has a large eagle to Jackson's right and a smaller eagle to his left. For enhanced security, there is a plastic security thread embedded in the paper, ink that changes colors when it is tilted in the light (from copper to green instead of the old green to black) and more microprinting, the tiny letters that are difficult to reproduce.
That may sound like a lot of changes, but in many ways the new bill still looks like the traditional bill, which apparently is how Americans prefer it. When the bureau tested bills with more intense colors, like purple and magenta, focus groups thought they looked fake.
"Intuitively, we thought that people would have liked the brighter colors," said Richard I. Mintz, chairman of the public affairs practice of Burson-Marsteller, who is in charge of the campaign for the new currency. "We were wrong. What they wanted was a more subtle change."
Even that may require an adjustment. "People may need a little bit of a heads-up about the new bill because of the color change," said David Robertson, publisher of the Nilson Report, a trade journal for people who work with consumer payment systems. "But I think the public will readily accept the bill, and it will quickly go from ooh-ah to ho-hum."