The subtle significance of Citi's "The Ex" commercial

“Jack, you’re a little boring,” Lauren tells him as she breaks up with him. Naturally, just like any other newly-heartbroken lover would do, Jack immediately visits the Citi Private Pass page on his computer. He earns Citi Card benefits that get him into museums, cooking classes, and an Alicia Keys concert. As Ms. Keys hands him her microphone while walking off the stage, he concludes the commercial with the zinger, “Who’s boring now?” Not you, Jack. Not you.

Neither is the commercial. While it may seem like a typical example of commercials that pit the sexes against each other, the result of this particular battle is markedly different: the guy wins.

This breaks from a tradition I’ve observed in other commercials, in which the woman triumphs. For instance:

2012 Hyundai Santa Fe: “Don’t Tell”

Throughout this commercial, the maverick dad takes his children on a string of dangerous or age-inappropriate adventures, instructing them each time: “Don’t tell Mom!” But Mom gets the last word at the end of the commercial when, after skydiving with her son, she tells him: “Don’t tell Dad.”

Of all recent commercials with such battles of the sexes, Citi’s is the only one (and the first I’ve ever noticed – perhaps I’ve missed others) to give the male character the last word (and without any hint of sexism). It breaks a long pattern of commercials portraying women as the more savvy, capable, or confident ones in a relationship.

A vintage Van Heusen
ad As funny as it may sound, this moment has been a long time coming. I’ve always felt that the pro-female bias in commercials was a sort of necessary overcompensation for historical misogyny. For example, there are countless vintage ads that blatantly use sexism as a marketing tactic, with headlines like “Show her it’s a man’s world.” Of course, this sort of language eventually became unacceptable; so advertisers shifted to the opposite sex, making men – a much safer and less controversial target – the object of mockery in commercials.

The reasons for which making fun of men is safer are so complex, they could be the subject of their own article. Basically, they’re the same reasons for which it’s acceptable to make white characters in movies the butt of jokes about their “whiteness,” but not to do the same to black or Latino characters: there exists no history of oppression and stereotyping of whites (or males) that such mocking painfully recalls. To be able to inoffensively poke fun at minorities, then, could actually represent a point of cultural healing – as is suggested by the enduring question, faced by stand-up comics and late-night talk show hosts, “When is it OK to make fun of tragic event X?” The answer to that question, perhaps, is the point at which the event’s victims’ amusement at such jokes outweighs their pain from hearing them.

Given this criteria for joke-making, the Citi commercial represents a turning point for advertising and its audience. This is not to say that sexism is a thing of the past, or that we’ve healed from it completely. (In fact, some commercials amazingly still employ sexism in their narratives. Try playing Spot the Sexism! in this lovely commercial from 5-hour Energy.1) But I do feel that Citi is taking a big step in a promising2 direction. I can only wonder (and I’m interested to hear readers’ thoughts): did they get their timing right?

  1. In case I've been less than clear, I consider 5-hour Energy's recent ad campaign to be one of the worst that I have ever seen for a popular product in terms of conceptualization, writing, direction, and acting. I may write another blog post specifically about 5-hour Energy commercials at some point, for therapeutic reasons if nothing else.
  2. Of course, Citi's Jack only "won" after internalizing Lauren's "you're a little boring" insult. Thus, it could be argued that his reaction only confirms her ultimate position of power in the relationship. This could also be a topic for its own article; and it's why I called it a promising direction, not necessarily the right one.