Citi's pale imitation Borat.

Advertising deconstructed.
Dec. 11 2006 12:31 PM

Watered-Down Borat

Citi's lame new ads.

Citi: Jogging Suit

The Spot: A man with a thick Eastern European accent describes different ways to earn points with a Citi credit card. Boasting that he gets points "tiger fast," he says, "For speed enhancement, I wear this striped pants." (Here he shows off a burgundy jumpsuit with embroidered gold accents.) The man is accompanied by an odd younger fellow named Victor, who wears bicycle gloves. As the ad ends and the Citi logo comes up, the accented man delivers his tag line: "Rewarding. Veddy, veddy, veddy rewarding." (Click here to watch the ads.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

I have a long, proud history of hating Citi ads. There was the "Live Richly" campaign, with slogans ("Holding shares shouldn't be your only form of affection"; "Hugs are on a 52-week high"; "The best blue chips to buy are the ones you dip in salsa") that seemed more appropriate for a handmade-wind-chimes shop than for a financial-services provider. Later came Citi's identity-theft-prevention campaign, in which the person pictured on camera (say, a black woman) would be overdubbed with the voice of someone else (say, a geeky white kid) who was buying lots of silly stuff with the first person's credit card. This was a clever way to illustrate identity theft, but the ads were flat—not nearly as entertaining or funny as they should have been, given the promising concept.

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The worst Citi campaign of all was the series of "Thank You" ads touting its rewards program. In these, one person would grievously insult another, and then, during the ensuing awkward silence, blurt "Thank you!" for no apparent reason. The insulted party, upon hearing those two words, would break into a smile and forget to be mad. This seems a perfect metaphor for the average person's relationship with financial firms: constant insult punctuated by the tiny thrill of redeeming points for a coffee maker.

Now comes this campaign centered on a foreign dude with an accent. (A few press accounts say his name is Roman, though I've yet to hear it spoken in any of the ads.) It's better than any of those previous Citi campaigns. Still, I sort of hate it.

These ads were helmed by Jared Hess, writer-director of the cult favorite Napoleon Dynamite. The DNA here is the same as that of the film: 1) dorky yet self-confident protagonist; 2) clothes and sets with an early-'80s aesthetic; 3) bizarre sidekick; 4) static compositions; 5) motionless camera. The look is eye-catching, and when Roman peers out at us from the screen and speaks, we listen. The key idea—that we can earn rewards points through Citi in myriad ways—is clearly demonstrated, in an offbeat (and thus hard to ignore) manner. On these grounds, I think the campaign is a success.

Citi: Distraction

But I've grown weary of Hess' brand of humor. It's best exemplifed in the Citi spot titled "Distraction." Here, Roman earns points while his sidekick, Victor, tries to distract him with, among other things, hip-hop dancing. It was not really that funny when a nerdy white boy danced badly in Napolean Dynamite. Now Hess treats us to more of the same—shoehorned into this Citi ad for no good reason.

Even less funny than nerdy hip-hop shwerve? Mild xenophobia. In her review of Hess' Nacho Libre, Slate's Dana Stevens wrote, "At least three-quarters of Nacho Libre's jokes rest on the assumption that being Mexican is inherently hilarious." She noted that star Jack Black affected "an accent somewhere between Ricky Ricardo and Ren of Ren & Stimpy." In the Citi ads, the humor springs from the notion that it's also hilarious to be Eastern European. (Ha-ha, tacky clothes cut from manmade fabrics.) Roman's accent and grammatical quirks are similarly unimaginative—the kind of stock choices your average sixth-grader might come up with when asked to approximate Dracula. Saturday Night Live's wild and crazy guys did this much better 30 years ago.

Of course, there's also a more recent model Roman's cribbing from: Borat. But while Sacha Baron Cohen's humor is all edge and provocation (and his accent a wondrous string of surprises), Citi's pale imitation Borat is offensive only in boring ways.

Grade: B-. Effective sales pitch, irritating aesthetics. The best part of the campaign is that tagline—"Veddy, veddy, veddy rewarding." The tripled very, paired with Roman's accent, makes for a memorable and on-message catchphrase.

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