Thursday, December 1, 2011

About that Citibank Ad (or why I will never be in an Outside Magazine Top 10 list)

In a previous post, I discussed my feelings about the transformation of climbing into a luxury sport, at least at a certain end of the socio-economic spectrum. I posted a Youtube Video of an ad made by Citibank that features Katie Brown and Alex Honnold.

Here's the video:

Given the dismal economic picture in the US right now and the fact that big American banks in particular have had a great deal to do with it, it was natural that the ad would spark a certain degree of controversy. A forum post on Mountain Project and another on Super Topo both alluded to Alex Honnold selling out to the "1%", an argument that was roundly quashed by most of the people who bothered to respond.

I thought to myself, this is interesting. Since when did climbing become so capitalistic? Obviously climbers have "sold out" before. We all have to some degree. But that a cadre of apologists for squillionaires in suits would praise their economic masters in a climbing forum caught me a bit off guard. A remarkable number of posters stood up to defend Fortune 500 companies (and thank heaven for that) because, somehow, without them we would be unable to, well, do pretty much anything. And this was offered up without a trace of irony, nor any suggestion that such a state of affairs might be less than desirable, especially given the self-image of climbers as individualistic, self-reliant, or independent. I saw a few posts suggest that somehow because Alex and Katie received compensation for this ad, that the money was (paraphrasing here) "going back into the climbing community" and this was a good thing. Not sure exactly how that was going to work, anymore than Jay-Z's T-shirts are going to help anyone but Jay-Z himself.

Now I am not suggesting that Alex should do anything in particular with his own money, though we may all want to think before we put our money there. This video provides a useful corrective to the consumerist (and fairly sexist "what girl wouldn't need new shoes?") picture of the world that Citibank would love us to believe in.

To me the bigger and more important question is that of meaning, both in our lives and in the sport of climbing. In other words, is climbing about striving for something outside commodification and marketing? Are there actually values worth sacrificing our material well-being, even risking our lives for? Alex's incredible achievements in the realm of free-soloing, to name but one example, seem to indicate there are. The commercial he was in indicates the opposite.

As I see it, climbing, and on a broader philosophical level, Western capitalist culture itself, is on a collision course with materialism in its deepest sense. The problem with materialism, philosophically speaking, is the basic equation between input and output. Expenditure of power equals a predictable determined result. Basic physics stuff. No sense of moral engagement or ethical questions about the well-lived meaningful life. In the end we are presented with a multi-sensory fantasy of endless and meaningless power played out in all its forms, from political to physical, applied in ever-more spectacular but increasingly hollow actions, creating ever more empty, even hopelessly self-contradictory, forms.

For example, I don't know if anyone else noticed the ironic position of Katie Brown at the end of the ad, a position intended to convey a sense of excitement and desire. She stands suspended over a seemingly infinite expanse of, well, emptiness, perched on a tower of visibly eroding sand, a point that appears to be a dead-end, a place of no hope or return. Maybe this image, intended as the perfect consummation of consumerist desire, is also an apt metaphor for the unsustainable and vertiginous trajectory of the Western economic system, of which Citibank is a prime example. The sport of climbing would do well to think a bit more carefully about how far it wants to go down this path.

Now I know this kind of negative thinking runs against the current of most climbing writing out there on the Web. A climber new to the sport, given the virtual amusement park of videos, blogs, news items, and so on, would think that all was well in the sport. And truth to tell, there are a lot of cool rides out there. But there is a lot of selling going on as well and I wonder if we are all really aware of what we are giving up long-term in our quest to fulfill our short-term desires. Going pro has its cons.


jriggedy said...

Many years ago, Lynn Hill was in an ad for Ford or some other major American car company. I seem to remember she was using the gas guzzling SUV, perched atop a sandstone tower, as a rappel anchor. Similarly, Ivan Greene was in an Isuzu ad. Ed Viesturs has long been in Rolex ads (talk about the 1%). A Photoshop-nightmare image of Tommy Caldwell was used to sell MetRx or whatever that major-market protein powder is called. Wolfgang Gullich was Sly Stallone's stunt double in Cliffhanger. No doubt the Hollywood junkshow gig paid a pretty penny. Matt Samet once wrote an article in Climbing about the many climbers who've cashed in on Tinseltown gigs. I'm forgetting more cases than I'm writing down here. All this is to say that climbers have for years been getting paid by big companies that make lots of money doing things that in no way represent the "pure" ethos of climbing. The Citibank ad is simply using the trendy, visually engaging act of climbing as a hook for its latest ad. The climbers are just trying to make a little money in a game that is notoriously short on the stuff. To me, the connection between the company and the subject matter of the ad is weak. And despite all the "selling out," there are climbers everywhere doing to for the love -- every day and in countless ways.

Scott said...

It certainly is an interesting juxtaposition. I struggle with it in the same way I struggle with the fact that I've got a solid career that makes me a good income but it not defining who I am.

There is a fine line that can be walked and I think anyone that walks is prone to waiver one direction or another from time to time.

I think though, like with most things, a balance will find itself. But not without work and education from the current community to those that are new to it.

It's funny because I think your blog was one of the first that I started reading, Peter. It's definitely more thoughtful and a bit more raw than the other climbing blogs out there. That's why I like it so much. You, Andrew at Evening Sends, Jamie Emerson, and the Narc all keep me psyched. I think the rankings are a little bit of popularity contest like with most things.

Keep writing good stuff and people will keep reading. Regardless of where you're climbing. =)

Arizona Teacher said...

Anti commercialism in climbing, yet you charge for you book. Why not print it and give it away free.

A couple climbers made money by working as stunt people on a commercial. Outside of the climbing world, which is probably smaller than 1% of the population, I doubt anyone will even know they are real climbers, much less who they are by name.


Peter Beal said...

jriggedy, I remember the examples you mention. The difference to me is the direct connection between banking, consumption and climbing at a time of extraordinary economic stress.

Scott, thanks for the vote of confidence!

Eman, if you really need a free copy of my book, let me know. Your example does not work for numerous reasons, starting with my publisher being a non-profit. To describe my book as commercializing the sport is a bit of a stretch. You can read it to find out why.

Arizona Teacher said...

Are your saying that your book doesn't help people get into the sport of bouldering more easily?It doesn't help convince them that they can improve their skills? it doesn't make bouldering more accessible?

I don't buy into the idea that banks collapsed the economy, nor do I completely agree with the idea that consumerism is the culprit either. I do believe that individuals needed to learn to live within their means a bit bit more.

What I see is people who made bad choices, both at the corporate level and the personal level with no one willing to accept personal responsibility for their actions. banks are getting blamed because corporations are easier to blame than people when the politicians run for office.

Banks would not be in the credit card business of the consumer didn't want them. They would not offer home loan if people didn't apply for them. The real blame is on individuals who bought into various services without knowing what they were buying or getting into.

Banks, credit card, and loans do more for our national and international economy than not having a credit system in place. I use my credit cards on a regular basis, I am more responsible with them now than I was once, that for sure.

Commercialism of climbing was going on before I started climbing back in the 1980s. The rise of sport climbing, an aspect of the sport I do enjoy, helped fuel it. The rise of bouldering has made climbing even more social, so bouldering is also contributing, and climbing gym are also helping with contributing. Plenty of people are jumping on the trad wagon too. Want to avoid commercialize climbing scene, stop buying climbing gear like shoes and chalkbags. (Yes, climbing companies build and manufacture gear to make money. Climbers who buy that gear are consumers.

As for this being a time of extreme economic stress, well, I still meet plenty of American Climbers traveling through Asia on their vacation, when I climb in the summer, I see plenty of climbers at the cliffs, especially on weekends. Climbing gear is still being sold at retail shops and online, new climbing gyms are opening and people are joining, so the whole economic stress doesn't seem so stressful to me.

So you know, even when I don't agree, I do enoy reading your views.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks Eman! The last paragraph says it all in my view. Of course there are plenty of people with the resources to travel abroad and climb. The American economy has created plenty of winners. For the rest of the population, the realities of the Great Recession are manifest in double-digit unemployment across wide areas of the US, a crushed housing market, eviscerated manufacturing sector, etc, etc. Congratulations on none of this affecting you.

bmj said...

Does what Katie Brown or Alex Honnold do really affect "climbing" for those of us that aren't sponsored, don't climb at the hardest levels, and essentially do it for fun? Does this Citibank ad change my experience at the local crag? I'm not sure.

Ultimately, it may have an effect, due to the commodification of the sport because of ads like this, but we've mostly survived such cycles in the past (though, often, not without some damage, such as crags being closed). There will always be scruffy boulders in the woods where we can go and avoid crowds and numbers, should we choose. Perhaps climbing is more capitalistic these days: compare how professional climbers lived 20 years ago. Ben Moon lived in a cave, Christian Griffith, Dale Goddard, and Jim Karn traveled Europe on shoestring budgets, eating rice every day. Quite different than the current crop of young guns renting gits. Of course, Moon graduated to a BMW M3, and Griffith lives pretty comfortably in Boulder. I suspect, too, that there are plenty of dirt bags climbing hard, but unlike 15-20 years ago, we read more about well-sponsored climbers living and traveling pretty well.

But...again...does that really affect me? Not so much. Have any of the cultural or economic changes in the industry over the last 20 years affected me? Not so much, aside from a few more people at the gym and the crag (and I can easily avoid the crowds at the crag should I choose to).

At the end of the day, I do think that pro climbers should likely be a bit more circumspect about how they make their money. I'm sure it's not easy--I'm guessing the haul of cash keeps Honnold on the road a bit longer, or pays for a larger expedition, but no choice is without its consequences.

Arizona Teacher said...

American unemployment rate isn't in the double digits. It's closer to 8%, which means 92% of the population is employed.

Also take into consideration that the term unemployed is redefined by politicians, so the term changes the numbers. Republicans and Democrats both want the numbers in their favor and against their opponents, so the definitions are reworded to help support their parties.

Anonymous said...

There is a moderate middle-ground that neither political extreme seems capable of recognizing any longer; Peter has perhaps revealed more of his secret resentment about being underappreciated as the stellar climber he is, than expressing any deep sociological reflections re: current economic crisis. I would rather see real climbers climbing, even in a commercial, than bogus garbage like Eiger Sanction, Cliffhanger, K2, etc all of which distort and perpetuate a false portrayal of real climbing, and the people who climb.
Not only are both Katie and Alex more or less on a real climb, but face it - there is a strong fashion undertone to "social" climbing today, and nothing in this ad misrepresents that.
As far as the "filthy lucre" goes, well, I heard that when Lynn Hill was making her greatest income competing, she consulted some sports rep guru and learned that her best year's income fell short of his starting salary; for the record, the 1% makes more than about $500,000/yr. Chuck Cole just made the grade selling out to Adidas, but that did take him 30 years. Still, his sell-out may have a greater negative impact than climbers "selling out" in ads, because if Adidas decides to stop shipping C4 rubber, the resoling sub-industry may go belly up, and we'll all be paying $100s more annually for crappy fast-wearing shoes.
If you want to get a quick gut check, go read about the Occupy movement at
Peter reveals a bit of the paradox, as pointed out here - where exactly does the distinction occur to make the selling of how-to and guide books OK, and the acting in commercials not? I personally found the entire spectrum of teaching/guiding/guidebook/how-to books, et al to all be selling out, in the sense that climbers wanted to get paid to climb, rather than work a 9-to-5 job; easy to be condescending and morally superior, except when you also shun other capitalistic niceties like health insurance, and have to beg for help when you get hurt. I have chosen to boycott all slide/video shows that ask me to pay, so others get to go climb. Get a real job, and stop worshiping at the alter of Fred Beckey, greatest bum of all time.
I am no fan of the Big Banks, Wall Street, or megal-corps, but neither am I impressed by the inchoate ramblings of sophomoric malcontent uttered by the average Occupier. I grew up during the Civil Rights era, and the Vietnam war, and the differences are vast. Foremost is that in those times, any protester could sum up in one sentence what change would be required to satisfy their protest, and that change was clear, coherent, and tangible - i.e. exit Vietnam; establish equal rights for all races under law. Now, meaningless abstractions and impossible demands are bandied about by frustrated but undermotivated groups of 99% young white kids who come across as spoiled whiners, demanding everything but doing nothing. Your Guy Fawkes mask makes you feel oh so radical and hip, but wait and see how well anarchy goes in the Mideast over the next 12 months before you decide that's the best option for us here.
Katie and Alex are good at what they do, "represented" climbing okay, and your puerile attempt at psychoanalyzing the visual imagery of the Ancient Art summit angles is beyond the pale (may as well do the same for every summit of every climb worldwide). Get over yourself, Peter.

Peter Beal said...

Anon,I admire comments that are longer than the post they respond to, even if they are off the mark. Well done.

Peter Stokes said...

Some background on the Mountain Project thread you mentioned in your post- the person who started it had just previously posted a rather disgusting and self centered comment in a Veterans Day thread on the same site, and it's possible some of the vitriol you read was as much a response to the poster in particular as it was a defense of "squillionaires in suits", as you put it.
In any sport or practice (such as dance or yoga), increasing popularity always brings mixed belssings- climbing is no different. More attention attracts more participants who don't neccesarily "get" the underlying values held by the folks who brought the sport here and/or made it interesting in the first place. Whether we like it or not, there are ever more people in the world, and a certain percentage of them will wind up doing the same stuff we do, but not always the same way we do it. The good news is we can all choose the manner in which we participate- if it's a "capitalistic" experience for some people, it can still be something much more interesting for others. People tend to see what they're looking for.

Anonymous said...

expecting these climbers to have either the personal ethics or the knowledge of wider political/economic cicrumstances which would lead them to decline money to be made from bank advertising is niave- good climbers are just that - no more or less insightful than anybody else. Perhaps you have an idealistic and romantic view of climbers generally?

Peter Beal said...

Good point, but I would argue that at some point climbers are more idealistic. Otherwise they wouldn't bother climbing. Then there is the issue of which corporation's money you would refuse. Look at the Sierra Club and Clorox. It didn't end well.

Oss said...

I think the type of reflection that Peter is suggesting is worthwhile and important. It is quite clear, from my point of view, that increased involvement of big corporations in the climbing world will change change the meaning of climbing. Now, one ad here and there may not make much of a difference. But if this becomes increasingly common, that is if the language of business and consumerism increasingly makes its way into the everyday world of climbing, and advertisements have a tendency to be quite effective, then we are likely to witness the sport becoming more like soccer or (American) football. Some of us clearly don't have a problem with that. I would.

I think the role of climbing as resistance to a capitalist order is ambiguous. Capitalism has a tendency to survive by making attempts of resistance into its ally and if climbing has ever represented a mode of being that is anti-capitalist, then those days are largely over. Solo climbing may be seen as resistance in the sense that a dead or crippled climber/worker is no longer useful as labor. And perhaps even bouldering has potential by being a symbol for the unwillingness to completely engage in the question for quantifiable productivity. Many people also find bouldering particularly meaningless, and witnessing the waste of power through meaningless activity may indeed be frustrating to some owners of capital. But generally, I believe it makes more sense to think of climbing as a practice through which frustrated workers can let off steam and then get back to work, or, through which less frustrated and privileged workers can get some nice kicks out of life.
/Jens Rennstam

Ben said...

The Citi ad has little more to do with climbing than just a marketer's idea to incorporate elements of something adventurous, extreme, etc. into a commercial. My guess is that Citi didn't even come up with the ad but paid a national advertising agency. But I believe your point about climbing and its economic interactions with the larger markets is very much warranted.

We as climbers should stand up and take note when a large company like Adidas has targeted our sport. Now, not only is Adidas promoting its own outdoor clothing line (after years of just owning Arctyrex) but also acquiring more focused climbing companies like 5.10. Citi bank could quickly disassociate from our sport should they need or desire to. However, a full assortment of acquisitions and attaching your hallmark brand name to a sport means Adidas is here to stay.

How will Adidas' motivations to enter and control our niche market change our sport? Will our sport which has a high degree of respect for both sexes fall to the way side of large company marketing genius like "sex sells"? Maybe our dirt bagging heritage will keep growth below what Adidas has forecast, are we now doomed to poor quality products as they use cheaper materials to adequately adjust? Just how quickly is our sport growing that it has caught the eye of such a large company? As far as passing on good climbing ethics to the next generation, it doesn’t seem like we can keep up with the current rate of growth. Let alone how will we keep up with potentially increased growth from large companies, who don’t know our ethics, piling more money into our sport and hyping it to the masses. I for one have an uneasy feeling about this.

Unknown said...

Hipocrisy. The height of it. Not their, but yours. Nuff said.

Peter Beal said...

Phil, is this you?

"police need to fire much more tear gas. the protesters were told to disperse and dont listen. flood them with tear gas and pepper spray. what about the rights of the residents to not have a bunch of losers in our neighborhood?"

Nuff said indeed

Anonymous said...

The writer of this post has a wonderful understanding on the English language, but not a clue on the true symbolism depicted here.
Clearly this is a simple story about female empowerment. She leads the climb, resists her boyfriends plea for an engagement ring, and in the end, is perched (standing and ultimately stomping on) a giant phallic symbol (the rock). Thus cementing her emasculating message that she is in control of her life and all that she surveys.
Simple. Effective. And a well produced message.
Regarding the "sexist" comment, "and what girl wouldn't like a new pair of shoes." Clearly the actor is strong and confident as illustrated by her athletic prowess, but deep down still appreciates the amenities that satiate her femininity.
All women, especially female climbers should laud this commercial regardless of who sponsored it.

Timothy said...

The writer of this post has a wonderful understanding on the English language, but not a clue on the true symbolism depicted here.
Clearly this is a simple story about female empowerment. She leads the climb, resists her boyfriends plea for an engagement ring, and in the end, is perched (standing and ultimately stomping on) a giant phallic symbol (the rock). Thus cementing her emasculating message that she is in control of her life and all that she surveys.
Simple. Effective. And a well produced message.
Regarding the "sexist" comment, "And what girl wouldn't like anew pair of shoes." The actor is clearly confident given her athletic prowess, but she also retains and embraces the things that satiate her femininity.
All women, especially female climbers should laud this commercial regardless of who sponsored it.

Peter Beal said...

Timothy wrote "The writer of this post has a wonderful understanding on the English language, but not a clue on the true symbolism depicted here.Clearly this is a simple story about female empowerment."

A message sponsored by a multinational corporation is anything but simple. To imply that this is about female empowerment is to ignore the consumerist capitalist environment in which this "empowerment" takes place. I question the claim that somehow by standing atop a spire she is triumphing over the masculinist narratives we usually associate with the sport. It seems to me she is perpetuating them instead, which is just how Citicorp wants it.

Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

Female empowerment? From Citibank?! You have got to be kidding. A company that was massively boycotted regarding apartheid, screws its customers on a minute-by-minute basis, raises its credit card rates on people who haven't abused their cards by blaming it on the economy, outsources to avoid paying a living wage and benefits? Yes, this company cares a whole lot about the plight of women, given their humanitarian track record. What a pretentious bullsh@t notion for a bank that's pure evil. This is not about female empowerment--it's a lame attempt to enchant a younger demographic with climbing and awful, trendy music.

I frankly find this commercial irritating and disingenuous, and Katie Brown annoys the hell out of me, as does that awful song used at that end of the commercial. Someone left the gate open, indeed.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how I stumbled upon this blog or whatever, but the person who wrote this garbage needs to move to North Korea if they hate capitalism so much. Pretentious moron.

Peter Beal said...

Move to North Korea... That's a good one, yes. Thanks Mr. Birch.

Peter Stokes said...

To the anon who wrote "Katie Brown annoys the hell out of me, as does that awful song used at that end of the commercial"- love it or hate it, that's fine, but just so you know, that's not Katie Brown's voice or opinion in the ad, nor was she responsible for the music.

Anonymous said...

I am from Brazil and I went to visit my brother in US when I saw the commercial of Citi. To be honest I even noted that was a ad from a bank. I was just interested on the climbing that is showed on the ad. So I came back to Brazil and when I was looking on the internet some information about the ad I came across with the discussion in this blog.

Until cetain point the posts show that old discussion about the romantic view of some sport agaisnt a view that at the end of the day the sport (climbing, surfing, even soccer in the past) is just a sport. I personally believe that the romantic, idealistic view of a sport is naive. But it just my oppinion.

What surprised me more was the post that states that inply that banks or other big corporation are the evil. "What a pretentious bullsh@t notion for a bank that's pure evil" What a black and white point o view of th world! I would not suggest to this guy to move to North Korea, but suggest to reflect a litle better about the world we live before write things like that.

Finally, Peter congratulations for your blog. Discussions and arguments are healthy. Like Voltaire said once "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it".


Guilherme from Brazil

PS - Sorry about mt englis mistakes

Louis E. said...

Peter Stokes--I was wondering if Katie Brown did the voice-over or only played "L Walker" (the name on the credit card,thus of her character) for video purposes.That the voice is one person and the body another is another level of fakery (though most queries about the commercial have been whether the climb itself was faked).

Louis E. said...

I note that there is a version with a different voice-over that is visible in the upper right of this cropped frame when the embedded version is finished playing.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I was amazed Alex would appear as second fiddle in such a cheesed#%k commercial. I have been poor. I was too busy scraping by for activities such as climbing. I am rich and very proud . I have also climbed many famous alpine routes. The rock cares not whether u are rich or poor.

Anonymous said...

just quickly skimming posts. When I have more time , I will post on point. I will say, Citibank really missed the boat. Aside from possible name association ( which is part of the advertising goal) I came away from the commercial thinking nothing of banking. Actually, the beauty of the video and the thought of the climb, over powered the intended message. I think the only reason I remembered Citibank is from recognizing Alex and checking the internet to see if he was the same person I had just seen on a 60 Minute Interview. So Peter, I don't have time to get into psycho/social/economical aspect of the ad. Just take solace in knowing that the ad did more for exposure to climbing than for banking...especially at Citibank.