Surely one of the most bizarre ad campaigns of recent years has been Citigroup’s “Live Richly” series of billboard, TV, and print ads, all of which carry the implicit message, “Money isn’t all that important”—a healthy worldview, perhaps, but not one that’s necessarily reassuring coming from an institution whose sole job is to protect your money. In the wake of the recent allegations against Citigroup—that the bank assisted Enron in hiding some of its debts, and that its decision to underwrite a $12 billion bond offering for WorldCom may have been influenced by the closeness of one of its analysts to the company—the campaign has never seemed more worrisome. Indeed, it’s difficult to walk past Citi ads these days and not engage in a mental conversation with them.
Dramatis personae: Me and Citigroup, the latter represented solely by its ad slogans.
ME: Um, hi. Look, I know this is an odd question to ask, but I’ve been reading some things in the papers about you guys lately, and I just want to make sure: Is my money OK?
CITIGROUP: People with fat wallets are not necessarily more jolly.
ME: What the hell is that supposed to mean? All I want to know is, you haven’t gone and done anything irresponsible with my checking account, have you?
CITIGROUP: Holding shares shouldn’t be your only form of affection.
ME: Oh, God. You have done something with my money, haven’t you? Just tell me what you’ve done. I promise not to be mad.
CITIGROUP: He who dies with the most toys is still dead.
ME: You put it all into WorldCom, didn’t you?
CITIGROUP: Funny how nobody ever calls it warm, soft cash.
ME: Uh-huh, uh-huh. Point taken. But just out of curiosity—you know, not that such things matter to me—exactly how much of my cash do you still have left?
CITIGROUP: Don’t wait until someone says “Your money or your life” to remember that they are two different things.
ME: Oh, sweet Jesus. It’s all gone, isn’t it?
CITIGROUP: People make money. Not the other way around.
ME: That didn’t even make any sense. Look: I sort of needed that money for little things like … rent.
CITIGROUP: Be independently happy.
ME: (Inarticulate whimpering.)
CITIGROUP: Human decency is up a point and kindness is making a rally.
ME: You’d better hope so.
CITIGROUP: Live richly!
ME: Go to hell.