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Smith Barney's To-Do List: Learn grammar, class

Posted by: Burth Helm on November 14, 2006

I picked up my Wall Street Journal this morning to find Citgroup unit Smith Barney’s new brand campaign emblazoned on the plastic. To the marketers’ credit, the advertisement caught my attention, and the slogan left a lasting impression. Too bad my impression was this: Wow, Smith Barney is boneheaded.


“I am Working Wealth” amazes with its efficiency. It starts things off with a tasteless play on the phrase “the working poor” (Remember the working poor? They’re the millions of Americans who work full time jobs but can’t keep their families above the poverty line). Then it packs in incorrect grammar and a clumsy double-entendre (If a money manager told you he looked forward to “working” your wealth, would you write the check?). And we haven’t even gotten to the body copy on the other side of the bag:

WORKING WEALTH. EARN YOUR FIRST DOLLAR BY YOUR LABORS. Get up early, work late. Get up the next day and do it again. Keep doing it, even after the dollars start adding up. SMILE AT CHALLENGES. CURSE AT IDLENESS. Be true to your dream. Don’t stop until you achieve it. Then dream another dream. And work to achieve that. PASS ON YOUR VALUES. NOT JUST YOUR ASSETS. Give your family a better life. And the world a better life, too. Leave no statues. Leave signs of significance. Working wealth wears no uniform and meets in no club. But you know who you are. We at Smith Barney would like to say one thing to you. WELCOME. (capitalization Smith Barney’s)

I won’t accuse the company of cooking up these idle platitudes — aristocrats have used such stuff to validate their wealth since the dawn of Western civilization (see line 332). Pompous job applicants still employ them regularly. But if we’re deciding to make our brand message fundamentally classist, Smith Barney, might we do it with decent or even smart writing (what’s a ‘sign of significance’??)? It’s one thing for a financial services firm to come off as pompous, or even as pompous and stupid. It’s another to cram all that into a slogan and advertise it every day.

Reader Comments

Maureen Rogers

November 14, 2006 10:50 PM

And while Smith Barney's going about learning grammar, class, they might try adding 'develop coherent messaging' to their to-do list. If I didn't know what SB was, I wouldn't have a clue what they were trying to get across. (Actually, I still don't.)I'll have to ad this one to my book of beauts.

steve baker

November 17, 2006 8:35 AM

I applaud Smith Barney for giving work to immigrants still struggling to learn English. The marketing is nothing short of brilliant. They don't beat us over the head with some self-serving advertisement about hiring immigrants to honor the American Dream. No, they put these people to work and publicize their efforts, ever so subtly, by pushing their ill-chosen words on a million newspaper bags. Never has clumsy prose spread such an eloquent message.
I'm a little busy today. Otherwise I'd join the hundreds of thousands who went straight from the newspaper bag to the Smith Barney website. I have no doubt that the details of the immigrant campaign are spelled out there. The accounts of those who evaded the Minute Men at the border, struggled for work in construction or a taco shop, and then finally landed a job in corporate communications at a major brokerage (while still taking ESL classes at community college)...It would be enough to bring tears to my eyes (if, I repeat, I had time to go to the website and read about it.)

howard smith

April 10, 2007 12:28 AM

I loved the laptop leather bag carried by the headless guy in a yellow sweater. WHERE can I find it?


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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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