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Bad News Bears Change Tone of Media Script


Solomon

When the Ameritrade company

launched a $200 million marketing  drive to explain the joys of online trading

in autumn 1999, a barrage of TV  commercials invited viewers to join in the fun.

The news was bullish, and  the firm’s motto — "Believe in yourself" — provided

an upbeat message.  Tech stocks led advances in self-affirmation.

A senior vice president at

Ameritrade proclaimed that online  investing "empowers individuals to take

control of their financial lives."  Within several months, the Nasdaq composite

index nearly doubled. When  spring 2000 began, plenty of satisfied new customers

were glad to be  playing the click-and-invest game.

Now, four seasons later, the

Nasdaq is less than half of where it  was. Losses have been particularly

devastating for many of the investors  who’d found the get-with-it

advertisements and other media hype too  irresistible to resist a year ago.

These days, the online

trading commercials are on television with  less frequency and less exuberance.

They seem to be more targeted at  long-term professional investors. Meanwhile,

journalists speak ruefully,  sometimes in morose tones, about the digital gold

that has turned to  silicon ashes in the mouths of America’s stock-buying

public.

Sure, "caveat emptor" and all

that. Everyone should have known the  risks. The same can be said for millions

of consumers who have let smiley  cigarette advertisements coax them into

smoking. But if the online trading  ads carried any warning labels at all, they

were in very small print.

On a daily basis, CNN’s "Moneyline"

and many other national TV  programs stoked the buying frenzy. It was all quite

lucrative — bringing  in record levels of commissions for brokerage houses and

high ratings for  market-fixated network shows. Only spoilsports warned that

disaster loomed,  and they didn’t get nearly as much air time as the boosters.

Today, news reports tell

about formerly soaring dot-com executives  who have seen their multimillions (or

billions) turn into Nasdaq rubble.  Even in burned-out condition, the stars of

cyberspace get plenty of media  attention. Less common are the stories that

focus on rank-and-file  investors who lost most of their life’s savings.

We still aren’t getting much

coverage of some grim details. For  instance: How were so many people drawn in

by the warm-and-cuddly images of  investment-by-mouse as a means to financial

security and personal glory?  What was it about the prevailing media environment

that persuaded millions  of Americans to put money they couldn’t afford to lose

into high-tech  stocks that were incapable of sustaining vastly inflated share

prices?

Eighteen months ago,

Ameritrade was boasting in a news release  that its huge ad blitz would go after

every sector of society: "The  campaign’s target audience is more psychographic

than demographic, cutting  across all ages, races, professions and income

levels."

All "income levels" included

people with close to zero disposable  income. The online brokerage firms proved

adept at separating a lot of  those individuals from their money.

Whatever their economic

class, many in the cross hairs stood to  forfeit more than dollars. To the

extent that they bought into ad pitches  and broader media mania for online

trading, people were also vulnerable to  bait-and-switch tactics that

manipulated insecurities in the realm of  self-esteem. With stocks climbing, a

slogan like "Believe in yourself" was  apt to seem like a welcome boost, a pat

on the back. But when self-regard  is pegged to stock prices, what happens when

the market tanks?

Embedded in the ostensible

affirmation was a much less humanistic  message: Believe in wealth. And no

matter where the market is headed,  that’s a message that ends up doing enormous

damage — inflicted with the  help of ongoing media themes — portraying a

person’s capital buildup as a  key indicator of worth as a human being.

Let’s face it: From splashy

magazine features to commercials and  entertainment shows on television to

laudatory news profiles of  venture-capitalist billionaires, mass media outlets

are frequently touting  the accumulation of financial assets as the pinnacle of

achievement.

Viewed from another planet,

the basic character of these dominant  media values would be clear. But we’re

accustomed to this constant  propaganda. We’re encouraged to think it’s normal.

And the costs — for  individuals and for our society — go well beyond any

losses in the stock  market.

Norman Solomon is a

syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of  Highly Deceptive

Media."

 

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