Lost In ‘Space’: A Look At Citibank’s Racebending New Ad Campaign

By Guest Contributor Jonathan Vogeler

This summer, Citibank began running an advertising campaign that features three young men embarking on a project, financed by the bank, to photograph Earth from space, using a weather balloon and off-the-shelf equipment. The advertisement taps several currents of our national mythology – independence, ingenuity, discovery, and superiority in space (which is itself an extension of our glorification of colonial conquest).

This is not an entirely fictional story. Two years ago, Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh, two Asian-American MIT students, made international headlines when they used inexpensive, readily available materials to photograph near-space orbit on a $150 budget. They describe their project here, and received national media coverage.

There is a remarkable visual similarity between the Citibank ad storyboard and the real-life project documented by Lee and Yeh on their blog. But there are a few key differences.

As you can see in the commercial above, the most obvious discrepancy is that Lee and Yeh have been replaced by two young white men and a third who appears to be African-American. Within this group there is also a clear racial dynamic: the white men initiate and execute the project, while their friend drives the vehicle and points appreciatively at their success.

America has a long history of mis-attributing credit to white men. But the specific erasure of Asian-American men is indicative of deep cultural paranoia toward the challenge that Asian-American success poses to white hegemony. If the ad were to feature the real-life heroes of this story, many white Americans may read it, not as a feat of American ingenuity, but a dangerous manifestation of their loss of power. This fear is evidenced both internationally, in apprehension toward the rising economies of Asia, and domestically, as resentment of Asian-American students at elite universities. The narrative of enterprising white men achieving success (with an assist from a person of color) is less threatening, because it reinforces the identity that white American men like to imagine for themselves.

A second, less-apparent difference between the commercial and the real story is the source of funding. Citibank positions itself in the commercial as a benevolent patron of small-scale innovation. You may have the idea, the ad says, but the big banks make it feasible. Therefore, white people have an interest in allying themselves with big banks, in the same way that Citibank is tacitly allying itself with the cultural demands of whiteness.

One of the most inspiring aspects of this story, however, is that Lee and Yeh were able to compete with NASA on a budget of only $150. They did not need a bank loan; their seed money was a $200 donation. As they describe it, the specific barrier that they faced was a lack of access to resources. They simply could not afford the expensive equipment that would be needed for near-space photography (and presumably no bank would have lended them the money). Their accomplishment was not only an expansion of scientific knowledge, but the pioneering of a technique that allowed them and others who imitate them to overcome the financial obstacles that restrict scientific access.

The story of ordinary people achieving their goals by tapping small donations and economizing is just as threatening to banks as Asian space-flight is to many white Americans. So this inspiring all-American tale of hard work and ingenuity is rewritten as an alliance between white hegemony and the banking system. Sadly, this the only version of the story that most Americans will ever hear.

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  • Mouseychan4u

    The black actor frequents a Toys R Us that I go to. Hes a very nice guy and seeing him in this commercial made me LOL

  • Mouseychan4u

    The black actor frequents a Toys R Us that I go to. Hes a very nice guy and seeing him in this commercial made me LOL

  • JadeLuckClub

    This kind of stuff makes me angry. May I repost, linked and credited to you of course?

    • Anonymous

      The original poster will have to grant permission.

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  • edc

    Someone needs to let Citibank  know that we’re on to them. Racism is so ingrained into American media that for most people this obvious white-wash is considered acceptable creative license.

  • http://www.facebook.com/asianmalerevolutions AM Revolutions

    This is really outrageous.  

    I’m sure that the advertising execs that gave this the green light were thinking about whether two Asian faces in a commercial might ‘confuse’ or even offend white Midwestern/Southern sensibilities.  Gotta think about their customer base and bottom line, you know!  /sarcasm

  • http://www.facebook.com/asianmalerevolutions AM Revolutions

    This is totally outrageous.  I’m sure that the advertising execs that gave this the green light were thinking about whether two Asian faces in a commercial might ‘confuse’ or offend white Midwestern/Southern sensibilities.  Gotta think about their customer base and bottom line, you know!

  • Kat

    About “Black guy in the video”: Yes, but he is the “acceptable-for-most-racist-White-people” kind, what I refer to as “un-Black”. You won’t see Djimon Hounsou or Alek Wek in ads like this. You’ll generally see the Zoe Saldana, Bianca Lawson, Logan Browning, Tracey Ross, Vanessa Williams, Brook Kerr, Michael Ealy type… Light skin, green eyes. Cause while they obviously are Black, many White people don’t “code”/interpret/identify them as such. And that’s why they’re cast. 

    • Is That So

      Why is it that light-skinned blacks often get charged with being “unblack”?

      • Anonymous

        I find it odd that Zoe Saldana is always included in the list of ambiguous looking black people.  Because I feel that the only reason people do that with her is because they know she is Latina, and people are unable to accept that black Latinos/Latinas have the same African DNA as the rest of us.  If her name was Zoe Jackson I wouldn’t have to hear the same garbage.  
        She doesn’t have a narrow nose, her hair is artificially straightened, her eyes are dark brown/black,  and she’s quite brown, and not light like the other people mentioned.Yet I read over and over again that she looks like a white woman, has a narrow nose, and doesn’t look black to white people.  And I think, who exactly are they looking at.  

        I mean, if you want to claim people who are medium toned and not that dark(but not that light either, there are a LOT of other black women that you should be saying are inauthentically black…Kerry Washington and Sanaa Lathan are no darker or “finer-featured” than Zoe Saldana.

        So do people just automatically look lighter if they have Hispanic surnames?  I’d really like to know.  

  • Private

    People have been doing this since the middle 00′s. The MIT guys were just the most recent group and got a bit better press than others.

    http://gizmodo.com/gadgets/balloon-in-space/ordinary-guys-send-picture+taking-balloon-2227-miles-high-293245.php

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_G3W5LEESZDVY62ZGLPAYBQ3NAQ HagbardC

    To be fair the MIT guys were not the first to do this. They just got better press than everyone else. Six months earlier some spanish schoolkids did a similar project (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/5005022/Teens-capture-images-of-space-with-56-camera-and-balloon.html)

    British guy started doing the same thing in 2008. (http://www.thefreelibrary.com/British+balloon+man%27s+amazing+space+photo.-a0222180207)

    Oklahoma State U project in 2008 (http://enticingthelight.com/2009/03/20/photos-from-the-edge-of-space/)
     

  • dersk

    Umm, it won’t. YouTube comments are famous for being full of useless trolls, etc. It’s just not an effective way to educate people.

  • Chris

    Hey Jon, another good example of this (which you might already be aware of), happened with the story of the  MIT blackjack sharks that got turned into a movie (21).  The original members were mostly Asian (relevant because they got their start in local Asian backroom gambling clubs), but in the movie, just about everyone was white.  Why they made that change I really don’t understand.

  • Guest

    Long time lurker here, but will you guys be doing your True Blood roundtable at all this week, given the final episode of the season? Or, are you all so disgusted by it, as I was, that words fail you?  

  • http://www.pinoyworld.eu/author/obiabadinas/ @Rakehell_Obi

    This is what I wrote as a comment on the youtube video. Comment pending approval.

    NICE WORK! sarcasm
    You changed two Asian-American guys into two white guys and a black assistant.

     Two years ago, Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh, two Asian-American MIT students, made international headlines when they used inexpensive, readily available materials to photograph near-space orbit on a $150 budget.

  • http://twitter.com/jonathandeevee Jonathan Vogeler

    You are absolutely right and I
    apologize that I conveyed that message with my careless language. I certainly
    did not mean to imply that light-skinned Black people are any less Black.
    I do think that many white viewers
    read light-skinned people of color differently and that this factors into
    advertising choices. Those attitudes are ignorant, racist, and wrong. However, that
    it is another topic and not something that I should have just tossed casually
    into an article without further comment.

    Thank you for calling me out on
    that, and thanks to the editors for deleting the offending language.

    • http://twitter.com/jonathandeevee Jonathan Vogeler

      This is a reply to Eva below.

  • Lena

    Great post.  I wish I had more to add than that.

  • Anonymous

    just to throw it out there… After looking at the Landing/Retrieval link you included, it appears that the third person in the real life ‘assist’ role was a white dude. The dynamics of that shift from a story of 2 asian guys with a little assist from their white friend to a commercial starring 2 white men with a light-skinned african american male. :-(

  • Eva

    I’m kind of offended you described a man as being so light skinned you think he’s white?  Not really.  I thought he was black when I first saw him.  He’s my complexion.  Sorry, all black people aren’t only one color.  I don’t think it’s right when lighter skinned black people are dismissed. 

    • Anonymous

      I know right?  I’m dark but yeah, like most black families we run the rainbow and it’s funny that anyone lighter than a certain shade becomes “white” or “mixed” to some people even when their faces and hair don’t look remotely European.  And it bugs me to no end when people say that their black experience is less black, since  unless that isn’t really true and certainly wasn’t true when their were laws about black things and white things.  
      I have a good friend who is the color of the guy in the commercial, and despite having long dreds (and afro-textured hair the otherwise), she gets the what are you treatment too.
      The guy in this commercial has a clear fro, so I don’t know who is confusing him for white either.  
      But I’ve noticed how people will dismiss facial similarities between two black people just because they are different colors, and I don’t get that either.  So if you and your light-skinned sister or brother otherwise look like twins, some people refuse or are unable to see it.  

    • Edc

      It isn’t right to dismiss black people of different shades but it’s a fact that lighter skinned black people or those with caucasian features are more palatable to white people and considered less threatening to the white hegemony.

      • Anonymous

        I don’t think the part about features is true b/c for whatever reason, people always act like light-skinned black people naturally and automatically have “white” features and straight hair, but when a dark skinned person has those traits, they are never acknowledged or seen as more “palatable” by anyone, and the hair is assumed to be fake.  
        So a wide-nosed lighted skinned person is called “white-looking” and a fine featured dark skinned person is never called that.  I’m dark, and I always laugh when a light-skinned person whose nose is twice as wide as mine is called “white-looking”, but it happens all of the time.  And it’s not as if there aren’t any naturally “small-featured” people in Africa who has no European ancestry.  

        I do think that white people and really a lot of non-blacks in general will code lighter skin as less black, even when the hair and face do not look remotely “white.”  But when in counts, trust me that they know the difference.    When Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America in the early 80′s, she got racist hate mail and death threats and they feared for her life.   Her light skin is still not white to anyone with eyes.  She’s another one whose pre-plastic surgery features(her original nose was very cute) and natural hair are not remotely “European.”  And when her parents moved into Westchester County, the white neighbors tried to pool money to buy the house away before they could get it.   

      • Anonymous

        I also think that this whole idea that they have it easier really comes either from the idea that they got to be house slaves and then PERHAPS more recently.  But between abolition and now, there was no “light-skinned” black people bathroom, section of the bus, or permission to move into white neighborhoods. So we have the whole Reconstruction and Jim Crow era when anyone coded as black got treated equally crappy.  
        The main exceptions are people who pass, because they have completely abandoned their black identities, but the “privilege” that people who are “made” for black doesn’t seem to add up to much.   

  • sarah

    “The story of ordinary people achieving their goals by tapping small
    donations and economizing is just as threatening to banks as Asian
    space-flight is to many white Americans.”  Wow, I can totally see the commercial this way now!  Never thought of the commercial in this way before…very interesting!