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From Secrecy to Transparency – The Evolution of Banknote Communications

Categories : Cash connects people, Cash contributes to education, Cash is available to all users, Uncategorized
June 13, 2024
Tags : Banknotes, Central Banks, communication, Education
Banknote communications have developed rapidly over the last few decades and best practices have been evolving.A fully fledged banknote information campaign requires extensive resources, and central banks therefore use partnership programs to spread their messages.
Antti Heinonen

Member of the CashEssentials Steering Committee ; Former Director, Banknotes of the European Central Bank

In looking at the evolution of central bank engagement with the public on banknotes, and what lessons can be learned, I will start with a few personal notes.

In 1981 the Board of the Bank of Finland (BoF) established a Theme Selection Committee with the mandate to propose a theme for the new Finnish note series scheduled to be issued in the mid- 1980s. This committee consisted mainly of external academic historians and art experts, and I was requested to prepare background material for it. I was working in the Bank’s monetary policy department at that time but was considered a sort of an expert in the history of money. The preparatory work led to my appointment as the Secretary of the Theme Selection and later Design Committee. Moreover, I became involved with many other tasks related to the introduction of the new series, including its communications, which was back then a new subject.

There is only one central bank per country. Hence, they often look to advice from abroad. That was what I did. The Assistant Director Erich Heini, responsible for the Press Relations department at the Swiss National Bank (SNB) was invited to visit the BoF in May 1983. He gave an extensive report on the communications measures used in introduction of the new Swiss note series. The SNB distributed leaflets via banks to citizens in connection with the issuance of each denomination, starting in 1976. In addition, the public were informed by service announcements on television.

Moreover, in 1984, when the BoF together with the Riksbank organized a central banker’s personnel conference in Stockholm and Helsinki, I was fortunate to become acquainted with Willibald Kranister, an Executive Director of the Austrian National Bank (OeNB), which, besides the SNB, was an early pioneer of the communication of banknote security features.

Willi invited me to attend the festivities related to 60 years of the Austrian schilling in December 1984, where I had the opportunity to obtain a thorough introduction to the Austrian banknote communications philosophy under his guidance and attended educational and training events in Austria. OeNB didn’t focus communications only around the issuance of a new note, but kept citizens continuously aware of the importance of the security features through various campaigns.

These visits and attendance at the Riksbank press conference in Stockholm in 1985 in connection with the introduction of the new 500 krona note led to many new ideas. These were used in communications about the new Finnish note series issued in two phases in 1986 and 1987. For example, an A4 brochure on the main security features of the new notes (watermark, security thread and intaglio printing) was distributed to every household in Finland. In addition, we conducted several surveys related to the new banknotes, which improved our understanding of the requirements of banknote communications.

An illustration of the rapid change in the thinking at the BoF is provided by the following example. The first brochure describing the security features of Finnish notes, published in 1981, was a limited edition targeted exclusively bank cashiers. The brochure was so confidential that, since I didn’t belong to the target group at the Bank, even I had great difficulty in obtaining a copy.


Banknote communications

The front page of an A4 brochure of the Bank of Finland in 1981


History of banknote communications

Since the introduction of paper money, its imitation has been a major concern for issuers. Despite that, communications on banknotes and their security features were not seen practical. Any relevant messages were printed on the notes themselves. Examples of this can be found on early Chinese paper money (‘The user of counterfeits will be beheaded…’), Swedish banknotes (‘Whoever imitates or counterfeits this banknote shall be hanged’), Danish notes (‘… will be punished by honour, life and property’), North American paper money (‘To counterfeit is death’), French assignats (‘The law will sentence the counterfeiter to death’).

Before the 1970s, communications on notes were limited to monetary reforms, and keeping the restricted circle of law enforcement and banks informed on new notes and their security. Formal international cooperation in that respect began in Vienna in 1923 at the second International Criminal Police Congress, which agreed to establish the International Criminal Police Commission. Information on genuine and counterfeited banknotes was at first distributed in specific newsletters by the Commission, and the first book was published in 1937, including the currencies of 45 states, colonies, and regions.

Moreover, central banks informed other central banks and, through them, the local banks about the visual details of their new notes. Only in case of a serious new counterfeit could the central bank refer to the difference of the feel of paper or missing intaglio printing.

As regards the general public, however, the secrecy surrounding the banknote features was considered part of their security. There was no need to increase people’s trust in and acceptance of banknotes by making their security features known. Wide communications were seen only to aid potential counterfeiters.

This thinking began to change in the 1970s, due first to the introduction of photocopiers and, later, colour copiers and innovations in digital imaging and printing technology. The new technology made it possible for the man on the street to produce counterfeits of a reasonable quality instead of requiring knowhow in plate making and lithography. Hence it became important to publish information on the security features to wider audiences to enable them to differentiate a forgery from a genuine note.

Besides the pioneers, the Swiss and Austrians, several central banks joined the club from the mid-1980s onwards, and today all note issuers see such communications as important. Many central banks have already launched several campaigns, and best practices have been evolving, also in line with the general transparency expected from central banks. Therefore, no justifications are needed here to explain ‘Why to tell’.

How to tell: Step 1: Raise awareness

The real challenge of banknote communications is to get citizens as interested in checking the notes when receiving them as a professional cash handler or a consumer. This is highlighted by the wide counterfeit use of ‘movie’ or ‘prop’ money, which normally have no imitations of the security features. Therefore, the first phase in communications is to raise awareness. The main communications media at first were leaflets, posters and public service announcements on television, as well as the distribution of VHS-cassettes to professional cash handlers and their training.

The internet, the use of social media and central bank websites have fully changed the media landscape, both as channels of information and platforms for the downloading of educational and training material. Now the printed material is provided mainly, if at all, in connection with the launch of a new banknote, but is available in digital form. Furthermore, central bank websites and social media enable tailor-made information to be provided to different stakeholders, be they the general public, financial institutions, retailers, law enforcement, schools etc. and to create partnership programs.

The best way to raise awareness is to have an interesting story, whether it is related to a new note series, an upgrade or a change in the substrate. The story of a new note series starts with its design phase and its naming.

The current euro series is called the ‘Europa series’ with a portrait of the mythological Princess Europa depicted in the watermark and hologram stripe. Similarly, the current Swiss series is inspired by ‘the many facets of Switzerland’ and the Norwegian series by the sea, each denomination reflecting the multifaceted importance of sea to the country. Correspondingly, the South African series portraying Nelson Mandela and named accordingly, provides as such the story like the Canadian 10 dollar note portraying Viola Desmond, a civil rights activist.

There are also other good examples of stories connected to the cultural history or nature of a country, like the new series of Kazakhstan (see CN February 2024) based on elements of the ‘Saka style’ that capture the heritage of the country.

Awareness can be raised even earlier by engaging the public in the selection of the theme or person to be portrayed on the note. The Bank of Canada and Bank of England have performed successfully in this respect. Also, the decision on the design of the third euro note series was based on surveys of the European public and their preferences (see CN November 2023).

Central banks have also found humour in their storytelling. Humour hasn’t traditionally belonged to the toolkit of central banks, but there are currently excellent videos on websites. As an example, ‘The Cod is Coming’ related to the campaign launching the new Norwegian 200 krone note (the main theme of which is cod) has gained more than 385,000 views in YouTube.

Another example is the Bank of Jamaica’s reggae video which have been great in accessing and raising awareness among new audiences.


Besides naming the new note series, slogans, in particular three-part slogans, have become popular in raising awareness about the change. When new security features were introduced to US dollar notes in the 1990s, the campaign slogan was ‘Your money matters’ and later ‘Know your money’. A new slogan was introduced in the 2000s with the new colours of the dollar notes: ‘Safer. Smarter. More Secure.’

More recently, a number of countries changing from paper to polymer substrate have used similar three-part slogans like ‘Cleaner-Safer (Smarter)-Stronger’ (eg. Eastern Caribbean Central Bank and Bangko Sentral de Pilipinas).

When the story or slogan has been created, the next step in raising awareness is to make the message easily conveyed. The use of social media is excellent for that purpose.

However, central bank websites should preferably have ‘Currency’ or ‘Notes and Coin’ or similar wording on the navigation bar or the campaign material to be found on a specific webpage. This is not always the case and information on new banknotes is to be found under ‘Operations’, ‘Payment (and settlement) systems’, ‘Financial stability’ or ‘Financial system’. To find the information by googling is not a very user-friendly way.

What to tell: Step 2: Focus on security

After having raised sufficient awareness of the new series, upgrade or change in the substrate, the second communications phase will focus on the security features.

At the beginning, when banknote communications were a new subject, many central banks published leaflets which pointed to all elements, sometimes amounting to more than 20 features of the new notes. But according to perception studies, adoption of such amounts of information is very challenging even to the most enthusiastic recipient. Hence, it would be better to focus on only a very few features.

The OeNB focused on five features, one for each finger, from the beginning until the end of the Austrian schilling time. The Bank of England has taken this philosophy almost to the limit: all their current notes can be checked using only two features.

Even though, the Bank provides further information under ‘Check more features’, the notes of the Bank of England can be checked using the same two features.

The notes of the Bank of England can be checked using the same two features.


Focusing the message on a very limited number of features has an added advantage: assuming that counterfeiters will concentrate their efforts on a few features highlighted in the central bank’s campaign, additional security features can be kept as sleeping features. They can be communicated in the event of a surge in counterfeiting in which the major security features used in the campaign have been imitated.

The three-part slogans, besides popular in raising awareness, are used even more extensively in communicating security features. The Eurosystem was probably the first one to use human senses in structuring the features with the slogan ‘Feel – Look – Tilt’. More than 60 central banks currently use similar slogan – mostly three- part slogans, but sometime even four or five parts, adding ‘Check’ or ‘Inspect’ or similar.

Cultures and habits differ and seem to have an impact in which order (first ‘Look’ or ‘Feel’) citizens are guided to authenticate the note. Anyway, even if central banks often do what other

central banks do, more than 60 of them show quite a remarkable consensus. There are also other nice plays on words such as ‘Take note’ (Bank of England and Central Bank of Barbados) or ‘It pays to check’ (Bank of Canada).

Whatever slogan or instruction a central bank is using in encouraging citizens to check the note, continuity is important, as illustrated by big brands in this regard (eg. Nike with ‘Just do it’). The message will have an impact when it is repeated consistently and over a long period. This is also an argument in favour of a certain degree of continuity when upgrading level 1 banknote security features.

Besides being good for storytelling, videos are very useful in explaining the security features. Particularly, education of three- dimensional features can be demanding with a two-dimensional leaflet or poster. More than 50 central banks are successfully using videos in this respect, and close to 20 central banks have developed apps on the security features.

Whom to tell

The first line of defence against counterfeiting is represented by a cashier in a kiosk, small shop or fuel station, where the counterfeiters attempt to buy small-ticket items with their fake notes. The key question in this regard is how central banks can provide the owners of these shops and kiosks enough incentives to provide staff training, which may not otherwise be justifiable given the often part-time or temporary nature of their employment. That’s why the raising of awareness stories are important in targeting these people as members of the public.

In principle, if the public receive their high and middle denomination notes from the banks and ATMs and the low denominations as change in shops, the probability of receiving a counterfeit is quite low. This is the case assuming that the notes are machine authenticated regularly; if not, counterfeits may regularly change hands (see Counterfeit Corner CN January 2024).

Anyway, both professional cash handlers and public should be targeted. The justification for informing the public is that, if and when they come into possession of a counterfeit, they have been provided with the information necessary to differentiate a fake from a genuine one.

A fully fledged banknote information campaign requires extensive resources, and central banks therefore use partnership programs to spread their messages. Websites, where partners can download campaign material and add their own logos before printing, have proved to be useful.


Banknote communications have developed rapidly over the last few decades and best practices have been evolving. When planning communications campaigns, the following points are worth considering: