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HSBC 'not an island' ads spark row over whether they are anti-Brexit

A HSBC bank logo is seen on a sign outside a branch of the bank in central London.
Niklas Halle'n | Getty Images

Poster ads by HSBC appearing in four cities in the U.K. have been questioned by some in the country for stating: "We are not an island."

People on social media are divided over the advert, that was launched earlier this month, with some suggesting it is anti-Brexit — which HSBC denies — and others saying that the bank's message is hypocritical.

One of the text-only posters states: "We are not an island. We are a Colombian coffee-drinking, American movie-watching, Swedish flat-pack assembling, Korean tablet-tapping, Belgian striker-supporting, Dutch beer cheers-ing, tikka masala-eating, wonderful little lump of land in the middle of the sea. We are part of something far, far bigger." It finishes with the tagline: "Together we thrive."

One Twitter user wrote: "Has @HSBC_UK joined the fight?" and used the hashtags #Brexit, #WeAreNotAnIsland and #fbpe, which stands for "Follow Back, Pro EU."

Another, Tim Montgomerie, who identifies himself as a Brexiteer on Twitter, wrote: "We are an island actually — full of villages and towns your bank deserted; of cleaners you underpaid; and of money laundering and other laws you bent. Brexit etc was a response to the economy you helped decimate. Thanks for the lecture but we'll manage without it."

HSBC paid nearly $2 billion in fines in 2012 for allowing Mexican drug cartels to launder money and in 2017 closed dozens of bank branches in the U.K., which it said reflected declining use.

Versions of the ad, part of HSBC's "Global Citizen" marketing initiative created by agency JWT, appear in London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, according to ad industry magazine Campaign. The "Together we thrive" line is the first slogan the bank has had since its long-running "The world's local bank " tagline was dropped in 2011.

Roger Hart, chief executive of U.K. advertising agency Aesop, said the ads are a reflection of society rather than being anti-Brexit. "The UK is a multicultural, multi-race, multi-religion society and the businesses and organisations that serve us need to reflect that in their make-up, whether that is a global bank operating locally, or the police or indeed the NHS (National Health Service)," he wrote in an email to CNBC. "A good ad and a brave move as they know it will kick up some controversy," he added.

The version appearing in Leeds states that the town is part of "the fabric of the nation," to which one person on Twitter responded "well played."

HSBC's "Global Citizen" marketing campaign launched in the U.K. last year with comedian Richard Ayoade narrating a variety of situations in a TV ad that showed the international character of the country. Standing on a bridge, he notes the German and Japanese cars on the freeway below, and then visits a home where children are watching American movies on their Korean-brand tablets.

An HSBC spokesperson told CNBC in an emailed statement Tuesday: "We believe that the people, communities and businesses in the U.K. thrive most when connected and open. Our 'Global Citizen' campaign is central to this, and with the 'We are not an island' advert we are reinforcing our strong belief that the things that make us quintessentially British are the things that make us inescapably international."

A HSBC bank logo is seen on a sign outside a branch of the bank in central London.
Niklas Halle'n | Getty Images