Wall Street's New Pitch

Never mind the recent surge in layoffs or Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan's congressional testimony last week about faltering consumer confidence. Perhaps the best evidence yet that the economy is softening is a new crop of ads from some of the nation's top financial-services firms. In the latest example of Madison Avenue's knack for quickly capturing shifts in the Zeitgeist, the ads have dumped the "Why aren't you a millionaire yet?" pitch that dominated financial ads in the '90s for a celebration of life's simpler pleasures. Indeed, one new TV spot for Citibank suggests that the surest way to "get rich quick" these days is to play with your kids. Remarkably, the ad, from one of the world's most powerful financial institutions, ends with the line "There's more to life than money."

The financial-services giants have long been among the nation's most skillful and pervasive advertisers, but the economic slowdown has left the multitrillion-dollar industry in a bind. After years of easy profits for themselves and their customers, the nation's big brokerages, which spent $2.9 billion on advertising in the first six months of 2000, are struggling to reinvent their marketing strategies. Gone are the days of the memorable 1999 Discover brokerage ad that featured a scruffy tow-truck driver whose day-trading talents earned him enough money to buy his own island. "Our target customer is not the person who thinks they're going to become a millionaire with the next IPO," says Marge Magner, head of Citigroup's consumer businesses.

Citigroup was one of the first big firms to sense the changes in the air. The company, which hadn't launched any significant new advertising since its buzzy "The Citi Never Sleeps" campaign premiered in the late '70s, began researching its latest ads last spring, not long after the markets plunged so dramatically on April 14. Bank officials quickly concluded that pushing the accumulation of wealth in today's shaky climate just wouldn't work. So the new ads focus instead on home and family and strike more of a spiritual note than a material one. The Citibank ads, like similar ones for Van Kampen Investors, aren't about the how of making money, they're about the why, and they are slick and evocative. The things that matter most in life, they say, are children splashing in wading pools, grandmothers nuzzling happy babies, pretty girls making funny faces and other fleeting moments of simple human joy. It's a very different image of what Wall Street is all about, says former Labor secretary Robert Reich, whose new book is called "The Future of Success." "Their message through the late 1990s was 'Come with us and make a bundle.' Now people are thinking about saving a little bit more, slowing down, getting a life."

Of course, the new pitches are not simply about promoting a sense of well-being. Citibank is calculating that its new ads, created by Fallon Minneapolis, will transform it into the bank of choice for the millions of Americans it refers to as "balance seekers." Guided by research, the bank is targeting households with incomes ranging from $60,000 to $100,000. They are "people who have always believed that money is not the end, but the means to an end," says Anne Bologna, the director of planning at Fallon Minneapolis. Citibank execs say 90 million Americans fit into the category. That's a whole lot of mortgages, credit cards and other services, and to snare a big chunk of it, Citibank is investing as much as $100 million in its campaign, which was launched in January and includes print, TV and outdoor display ads. Despite skepticism about banks and investment companies de-emphasizing the importance of money, marketing experts say the soft sell may be just the right approach for hard times.