Virgin's New Credit Card Plan Heralds the Continuation of Vanity Plastic

NEW YORK (MainStreet) - These days the revolution comes at a pretty hefty interest rate.

Last week Virgin Money, a financial services brand of Virgin Group Ltd., announced that some of the most iconic punk-rock album artwork in history will grace the front of its credit cards, courtesy of the Sex Pistols. Three different cards will roll out, two featuring the yellow and black cover art from “Never Mind the Bollocks” and one Union Jacked “Anarchy in the U.K.”

In perhaps the most un-self-aware bit of marketing in history, a statement from Virgin Money called the partnership a chance for “for consumers to put a little bit of rebellion in their pocket.”

All three cards have the Sex Pistols’ band name prominently displayed across the front along with their anarchic slogans. As consumers can consider the “sociopolitical aridity,” “jet set corruption” and “utter betrayal of the communal faith” under attack in Never Mind the Bollocks, they can also be comforted by the reminder that for everything else there’s MasterCard. Although Virgin has taken pains (sorry, applied “advanced technology”) to scrub all other information from the front of each card to make better room for the Sex Pistols, MasterCard’s logo remains prominent in the corner.

Virgin Money is an offshoot of Virgin Records, Johnny Rotten's label all the way back in the day. The card seem to have been announced in honor of the band’s 38th anniversary with the company, an anniversary choice so odd that it would be noteworthy if it weren’t for everything else about this particular partnership.

So this is what punk has come to.

Vanity cards are nothing new in the financial landscape, yet there’s something rather tired about this hijacking of the revolution. In an era where Ozzy Osborne has his own reality show, who’s left to shock?

Virgin Founder Richard Branson can brag all he wants about partying with the Sex Pistols on a boat in front of Parliament, which he does at length in a promo video for the new line of credit cards. “[W]e are still being asked to censor the word bollocks in our advertising,” Branson said in the official announcement trying to corporatize some edge.

To call this a challenge to “convention and the established ways of thinking,” as Director of Cards Michele Greene did in a statement, seems ludicrous. This is a credit card. It will lend you money and charge about 20 cents on the dollar for doing so. A little bit of cover art doesn’t change that.

This is sad because… well, we can’t quite put my finger on why.

Maybe it’s because a major company still believes that people will buy the idea of corporate sponsored rebellion and edgy, counterculture press releases.

Maybe it’s because of just how unlikely it is to that revolution will pay a visit to some of the British banks that committed a massive conspiracy to defraud the public yet faced virtually no penalties.

Maybe it’s the sense of let’s play pretend at revolution by redecorating our credit cards and remembering the good old days when Rolling Stone compared Virgin artists to a high speed subway crash set to the sound of Moby Dick battling Captain Ahab.

Probably, though, it’s because these bands and this music still have the power to inspire.

It’s no matter that the Sex Pistols are no strangers to cashing in. Their 1996 comeback tour was titled Filthy Lucre, and this is the band that once crooned “the only notes that really count are the ones that come in wads.” Even so, the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones -- these bands all stand for a time when a generation danced and loved to the idea that we really could break the system and shake the trees. Now, in an era when the powerful seem more entrenched than ever, we could use a little bit of that imagination once again.

Too bad it’s a little too busy being co-opted for a financial product.

But hey, maybe it’s just right for the times after all. Click “Like” on this video to depose a dictator in Africa, forward this e-mail on to help fight human trafficking in Southeast Asia and, while you’re at it, put a little rebellion in your pocket.

-Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website A Wandering Lawyer.

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