Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Look Who’s Talking

It’s a substantial and growing threat, so you’d expect to hear some hectoring in advertising announcing protection from identity theft. The standard approach would probably involve one of the sainted elders from Law & Order issuing a variant of the “It-can- happen-to-anyone-so-don’t-let-it-be-you!” speech. And that, in turn, would foster the standard viewer reaction:

“Hey, how many different Law & Orders are on now anyway?” or, “Did I just see that guy in a commercial for Charles Schwab?” or (most likely), complete numbness in the face of elevated warnings about yet another hideous scourge.

Instead, this inspired Citibank campaign from Fallon demands full attention, and is such a clever switch on the expected that it pays you back for stopping in your tracks. As improbable as it sounds, the idea of shock and horror—exactly what you’d feel if your identity were stolen—is demonstrated in an entertaining way in three spots. It takes a bit of preliminary cognitive dissonance to get there, however: We see people in their natural settings, going about their mundane, innocent lives, when out of their mouths comes a reverse-gender voice of larcenous evil.

In my fave, “Geek,” an attractive young African American woman is soaking in a thronelike pedicure chair in a happening, ’60s-mod salon. “Firewall?” she says, laughing in a horrific male voice. “Like that could stop me! Once I got her account number, I couldn’t spend it fast enough: 64-inch plasma-screen monitor, 10 4.2-megahertz wireless routers and 20,000 bucks to complete my robot. My girl robot. This is gonna be the best prom ever!”

There’s lots to process: the beautifully cast and composed visuals, which look like hyper-real photos; the arrestingly fresh take on geekiness, which previously seemed benign but here, with talk of building a girl robot, works up to new degrees of pervy-creepster; the technical mastery of the actress’s moves and the lip-syncing (not at all like a badly dubbed foreign film). All this takes a few seconds to register. Then the ever-consumer-friendlier Citi logo comes on, along with jaunty, whistling music and an announcer offering, “Help getting your life back—that’s using your card wisely.”

The other spots are great, too. In “Outfit,” a middle-aged guy in his flannel shirt and messy sweat pants watches TV in a wood-paneled den that’s definitely in need of a queer eye. He emotes in the voice of a manic Valley Girl who just “hit the mall” and bought a $1,500 leather bustier.

And in an updated suburban American Gothic, an elderly hubby sits stock still on a lawn chair while his wife, in a flowered house dress, skims bugs from her above-ground pool. In a Southern man’s deep voice, she says, “Got me a new driver’s license and a sweet new pickup. V-8, baby. 500 horsepower. Oh, and four of them mud flaps with the naked ladies on them. Grrr! Mamacita!”

The first two spots, especially, stay away from stereotypical criminal situations and the usual thug voices we’re used to seeing and hearing in police dramas and anti-drug commercials. That makes the disjunction function even better.

The dissonance becomes like an interactive game—it’s a commercial you have to solve. And the message resonates because this is an innovative service. Credit bureaus are not set up to help, and rectifying a stolen identity, getting through the thickets of necessary affidavits and police forms, can sometimes take eons.

I must admit that when the “Live richly” campaign started three and half years ago, at the height of the dot-com boom, I thought it was another case of cognitive dissonance—the Orwellian kind. The ads were certainly graphically fresh and clever—”He who dies with the most toys is still dead” was one example—but I didn’t find them credible. As if Citibank, or any bank, really believes there are more important things in life than money.

Citibank stuck with it, then the tech bust came, then 9/11, then all the other banks started going after retail customers, whom they had previously spurned for decades. And the Citibank campaign started looking amazingly prescient. Indeed, competitors like Washington Mutual and even Chase got into the same funny, sophisticated, de-bank-the-bank branding mode, offering the banking equivalent of clever comfort food.

Citi is a lesson in sticking with it for marketers who keep switching campaigns and agencies. The campaign is still evolving, and these three spots are the best TV work yet. In this case, familiarity has bred contentment.