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Truth in Advertising

What is the new Citigroup ad telling investors about the latest rally on Wall Street?

October 9, 2003

What is the new Citigroup ad telling investors about the latest rally on Wall Street?

Future historians might wonder what the signs of the end of the Clinton era in the United States really were.

We who have lived through the transition will be able to say without hesitation. It's the return of the jacket-and-tie dress code from the White House down to the high-tech start-up — and Citi ads.

The current Citi ad campaign must rank with some of the greatest send-ups of all time. As Americans reeled from massive losses suffered in the stock market that measured in the trillions of dollars, Citi's cheerful ads extolled such timeless values as family love, friendship and quality leisure time to enjoy one's hobbies.

Recent adds by Citi proclaim such wry, homespun truths as:

“Holding shares shouldn’t be your only form of affection.”
“Remember, it's not what you live on. It's what you live for.”
“Put your bills to bed, but only after your kids.”
“Interest rates are important, especially when dating.”

They are also clever sendoffs for the money-grabbing, stock market-obsessed culture that pervaded the United States in the late 1990s.

It probably doesn't matter that Citigroup, under the leadership of its soon-to-retire CEO Sandy Weill, grew into a global financial colossus by gobbling up such true-blue financial conglomerates as Salomon Brothers and Smith Barney and expanding by leaps and bounds during the go-go 1990s.

Citigroup has definitely become an empire. Appropriately, Mr. Weill's successor is a Prince —Charles O. Prince, to be exact.

But the bank now makes its money — a lot of it — not by trading stocks or investing for its clients, but by keeping its nose to the grindstone and issuing bread-and-butter consumer loans and mortgages.

But in case you think things are about to change with a new burst of confidence on Wall Street, think again. Mr. Weill clearly doesn't think so. God knows, there have been enough dead cat bounces and false recoveries in U.S. stocks over the past three years.

So, one of Citi's new ads announces: "The best blue chips to buy are the ones you dip in salsa."

In other words: Don't even think of it. Stay with your newly found hobbies, party and stuff yourself with tortilla chips and salsa if you don't want to get burned in the stock market yet again.

Or, as the slogan that runs through all Citi ads advises, "Live Richly" — meaning a rich emotional life and self-fulfillment in lieu of the actual financial wealth that has gone down the tubes in the financial market crash.

Rich living — that is, the way the rich live — is obviously reserved for Mr. Weill after he retires at the end of this year.

The ad is also full of other subtle suggestions, in keeping with the humble post-stock market crash sensitivities of the new millennium.

The reference to blue chips, rather than common Doritos, brings to mind healthier — possibly organic — food.

Plus, by telling you to eat tortilla chips — not buy stocks — Citigroup stays on the good side of Eliot Spitzer, the combative New York State Attorney General who has been going after investment bankers for stock-flogging and self-serving research.

And of course salsa is a cool multicultural word. Not a bland American dip. After all, the Latin community in the United States has been growing fast, and Latinos are about to overtake African Americans as the largest minority.

But ads have nothing do to with real life, of course. Just look at second quarter results at Citigroup. Its expenses rose 8% from a year ago, largely as a result of a restructuring of its operations in Latin America.

Salsa or not, like other financial institutions around the world, Citi has decided that the region has been far too volatile and has started to scale down its presence there.

At least somebody is still thinking about business while the rest of us stay in touch with our family values and enjoy our blue chips and salsa.