This morning I caught sight of a Citibank ad on a billboard near the East River, which says something about how one never loses a friend between sofa cushions.
The illusion of intimacy is what attracts the eye - Citi is relating to me, wants to talk to me, is perhaps looking at me.
What the company's "Live Richly" campaign actually offers up is a mix of pop existentialism with a pasty lumpen anti-materialism, kind of Ann Landers meets Schopenhauer. An even odder juxtaposition, though, is of those billboard messages and the reputation of the corporation offering them.
That Citi is trying to be a personal advisor on matters of life and love obviously makes little difference to consumers who think of Citi - with its Harold and the Purple Crayon arc over the top - as some faceless marble pediment in whose corridors multinational plots are hatched, and pictures of Eliot Spitzer are perhaps used to give a human face to dartboards.
Citi isn't pitching those consumers, of course, and doesn't a company need to create a personality for itself, especially if it's a bank? After all, a bank is not exactly a passion point.
I disagree. In fact, I would argue that nowadays, in a world of instant media, corporate reputations are created instantly. At some level, perhaps subconsciously for most people, Citi's reputation precedes it and is bolstered by the inalterable fact that the corporation is a faceless monolith.
I think the idea that the bank is promulgating, that money isn't everything, it shouldn't be a religion, but rather an important adjunct that lets you live well, is exactly wrong. The company ought to be telling consumers that money is everything, and especially saving money. Remember saving? There's a virtue that Americans seem to have abandoned along with the national surplus.
The really virtuous thing for Citi to do would be to re-enact some version of a scene from Mary Poppins. After Michael tries to give his tuppence to the bird lady, he is roundly lectured by the fathers of the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Of course, the head of the bank grabs the tuppence from Michael's hand, leading to a tussle and ultimately a run on the bank.
But as mercenary as the bank fathers appear to be, there is something admirable in the image of the staid, dull, daunting, and metronomic workings of the Dawes, Tomes, Mousely, Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Or any other bank. Perhaps as a consequence of alternatives to banking, most banks have gone the other extreme, marketing themselves as anything but boring and staid.
What else can you do when there's Schwab saying "Ask Charles" everywhere you turn? Citi's not alone. Washington Mutual, a bank based in Seattle, has been touting its free checking offer to Gen X and Y with a revolution theme and an appeal to carefree living.
In the end, a bank is a bank. Banks are in the business of grabbing that tuppence and making money with it. Why pretend otherwise?