Citibank yanks spots starring pair of oddballs

Failure of Roman and Victor forces company to resort to recycled ads

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Roman and victor-the odd and obnoxious Eastern European duo that Fallon, Minneapolis, concocted to tout Citibank's "Rewarding. Very, very, very rewarding" credit-card rewards program-are going to have to spend all those accumulated airline miles in early retirement.

Citibank pulled the plug on the spots late last month, opting instead to run recycled ads until it gets the long-awaited successor to its highly regarded "Live Richly" campaign onto the airwaves. The new branding push was originally supposed to be shot in the fall, but could now air as early as the second quarter.

A Citibank spokesman said the Victor and Roman ads were always intended to be temporary, although he conceded that they weren't originally planned to be limited to the fourth quarter. "There aren't any current plans to bring those characters back," he said.

That news may draw an enthusiastic response from critics such as the online magazine Slate, which described the pair as a "watered-down Borat." The spots, directed by Jared Hess of "Napoleon Dynamite" fame, starred Judd Hirsch look-alike Roman Tokar-in real life the superintendent of a New York apartment building-as a thick-accented (and possibly Russian) man.

One commercial featured Roman (pronounced Ro-mahn) wearing a dated tracksuit to emphasize how "tiger fast" he can earn rewards points with a Citibank credit card while booking a flight to Miami by phone. Victor, his largely mute but dweebily menacing black-leather-clad sidekick, looks on. "Thanks to Citi," Roman drawled in his pseudo-Eastern European accent, "no one can match my rewards points skills."

Roman, Fallon said in an October release announcing the campaign, was created to underscore how Citi's rewards programs can turn anyone into the "ultimate rewards-point earner."

Fallon referred calls to Citi, which would not discuss the somewhat inscrutable strategy behind the Roman and Victor ads, or address the question of whether they have been yanked because of negative feedback in the blogosphere and elsewhere.

Citi is replacing the spots with recycled "Thank You" rewards ads while it waits for the eventual successor to the "Live Richly" branding campaign pulled last year.

The apparent creative paralysis comes at a time when the marketer has been forced by Wall Street to rein in its media spending. Citibank spent $170 million in measured media through the first nine months of 2006, vs. $356 million during all of 2005.

Those spending cuts are not expected to be permanent, as a big spending boost is expected to back the new global branding push once it's completed.

The accelerated timetable to shoot the new effort has more to do with internal changes at Citi, which saw its chief marketing officer and top advertising executive defect to Federated Stores last year, than it does with the pulled Roman ads. Robert O'Leary, the marketer's new managing director-global advertising, is said to have pushed for the earlier timeline.

A Citi spokesman declined to comment about the content of the branding campaign, except to say that it would be executed by Fallon.
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