The Buck Fifity Stops Here
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The Buck Fifity Stops Here

The “Buck-fifty Stops Here” Teller Stampede media event was conceived to launch Washington Mutual’s new policy to eliminate the $1.50 surcharge fee for non-customers using their ATMs in California.

Paul Holmes

The “Buck-fifty Stops Here” Teller Stampede media event was conceived to launch Washington Mutual’s new policy to eliminate the $1.50 surcharge fee for non-customers using their ATMs in California.  The news of a bank giving back something to consumers was unconventional and a leadership move, and the theme of the launch was the same – unconventional, not like the other banks, the “unbank.”  The media events kicking off the new policy capitalized on political and consumer sentiment against ATM surcharges, and promoted Washington Mutual’s image as a consumer-friendly bank where the tellers are the “stars” – and the messenger of the good news for consumers.  The event included an offbeat and unusual surprise to engage audience members and the media, a donation to community foundations and a charity drive that drew potential customers directly to the bank, as well as appearances by public officials to endorse the bank’s new initiative.


In the fall of 1999, the media and the public in California closely followed the ongoing debate about ATM surcharge fees that banks charge non-customers who use their ATMs.  The debate was hottest in the cities of Santa Monica and San Francisco, where voters approved anti-surcharge ordinances requiring banks in those cities to eliminate the fees.  Further action in the courts involving California’s number one and two consumer banks, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, resulted in the ordinances being declared unconstitutional.  This allowed banks to continue charging non-customers the ATM fee, which can range anywhere from $.50 to $3.00.  While the banks won the legal battle, consumers and community leaders continued their public opposition to the fees.

Washington Mutual, California’s third largest consumer bank, decided to eliminate the $1.50 surcharge fee for non-customers using their ATMs in California, and they called on Rogers & Associates to launch the progressive new policy onto the national media stage.  


Research: Rogers & Associates delved into the history of the ATM surcharge controversy and identified the key issues, politicians and consumer organizations involved in the debate.  Industry research was also completed to highlight Washington Mutual’s unique position in the marketplace and clearly identify differences between the bank and its competitors.  Research was also conducted to determine the fee structures in force at other major banks to explain to reporters the rather complicated system of surcharges and interchange fees that occur as a result of ATM transactions.

Planning Process: Part of Washington Mutual’s brand image is that the tellers are the “stars of the show.”  Playing on the theme of the company’s advertising, which featured their tellers’ “celebrity status”, Rogers & Associates incorporated Washington Mutual’s fun, offbeat “folksy” image into the media events to create good visuals for television and print media.  Media events were planned in four California markets, selected for their political or consumer involvement in the issue – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Diego.

Knowing the ATM surcharge fee was as much a hot political issue as it was a consumer issue in California, key politicians who opposed ATM surcharge fees in the past – including San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and LA City Councilman Alex Padilla – were approached to speak at the media events and support Washington Mutual’s new policy.  Each made positive comments regarding Washington Mutual’s decision to eliminate the ATM surcharge fees for California consumers, and attracted widespread media coverage.

Objectives: Rogers & Associates conducted the media events to achieve the following objectives:

  • Achieve national news coverage of Washington Mutual’s decision to eliminate the $1.50 surcharge fee for non-customers using their ATMs in California
  • Increase consumer awareness of Washington Mutual and drive traffic to financial centers
  • Enhance Washington Mutual’s reputation as a consumer-friendly bank
  • Contribute to Washington Mutual’s teller-focused branding and marketing efforts


The agency believed such an “unbank-like” announcement would reinforce Washington Mutual’s brand image as neighborly and down-to-earth, and used the opportunity to differentiate the company from other financial institutions.  The announcement was positioned as a “win-win” for consumers and for Washington Mutual.  Consumers save the $1.50 surcharge fee, while Washington Mutual could expect an increase in new accounts as non-customers visited financial centers and became familiar with the bank.  

In order to tout the bank’s reputation as a neighborhood-friendly bank that gives back to its community, Rogers & Associates incorporated a charity element into the media events.  Donations were made to regional community foundations, and the bank announced it would donate $1.50 to charity for every non-customer ATM transaction conducted throughout the state of California during a one-week period.  The charity drive gave non-customers an incentive to visit Washington Mutual ATMs to “do their part” to contribute to local charities, and to the bank’s benefit it familiarized consumers with bank locations and increased transactions at the ATMs – increasing interchange fees to other banks to offset the discontinued surcharge.


The media events were held on the day the new surcharge fee policy was implemented in California.  Each event was conducted in high-traffic pedestrian areas to attract an audience and generate excitement for the announcement.  The unconventional media events featured Washington Mutual tellers -- wearing T-shirts and carrying tote bags with the campaign logo -- bursting through a banner from behind the stage and into the audience.  Tellers chanted “The Buck-fifty Stops Here,” and dispersed throughout the crowd distributing Washington Mutual coin purse key chains stuffed with six quarters to give the “buck-fifty” back to consumers.

The media events received both national and local coverage amounting to more than 198 print and broadcast hits nationwide, including the New York Times and CNBC.  Due to this coverage, the Teller Stampede media events reached an audience of more than 46 million people nationwide with Washington Mutual’s “The Buck-fifty Stops Here” announcement.  Overall, the promotion generated more than 1,200 column inches and 90 minutes of airtime.  The advertising equivalency of the coverage totaled more than $1.1 million.

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