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When Online Trading Offers a Reason to Believe


Norman Solomon

If

you’re watching much television these days, you’ve probably seen a lot of

commercials for online investing. Many large brokerage firms are now urging

people to play the stock market via the Internet. So, in routine fashion, TV

spots dramatize cyber-trading as an activity that brings excitement,

independence, financial security and even self-realization.

Helping

to fuel the online trading mania is a new blitz from Ameritrade, a company that

has launched a $200 million national marketing drive. "The campaign’s

target audience is more psychographic than demographic," says an 

Ameritrade news release, "cutting across all ages, races, professions and

income levels."

The

claim is dubious — after all, a substantial part of the country’s population

can’t afford to buy enough groceries, let alone buy stocks online — but the

reference to "psychographic" targeting rings true. The televised

invitations to join the money chase in cyberspace are calculated to exert

maximum psychological pull in a media environment where there’s a vacuum of

human substance.

Offering

to fill the void, Ameritrade advertisements repeatedly end with the same tag

line: "Believe in yourself." But the ads also convey another message,

implicit and far less uplifting: Believe in your wealth.

The

mixed messages would be insidious even if most people could get rich. But of

course, few will ever become wealthy. And while the hype from online brokers is

evoking images of the shrewd "day trader" who can make a killing on

Wall Street with mouse in hand, the online frenzy could harm the financial

security of millions of Americans. At a time when many economists believe that

stocks are greatly overvalued, plenty of individual financial futures could be

undercut on short notice.

Not

bothering to mention the risks, most of the advertisements touting the joys of

online trading cannot withstand scrutiny. But they’re not supposed to.

"I

don’t want to just beat the market," a woman declares in one Ameritrade ad.

"I want to wrestle its scrawny little body to the ground and make it beg

for mercy."

On

a TV commercial, listless immigrants in an English-language night school perk up

at the mention of the stock market. "I’m praying for a rally," says an

African newcomer. "I trade with Ameritrade," a woman exclaims. "I

live for Ameritrade," says a man with a Slavic accent, his arm raised high

alongside a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Another

commercial has a pony-tailed young man fervently telling his executive boss how

to buy stock on the Internet. For the mesmerized older guy, his first online

transaction becomes an epiphany. 

Ads

like that gain power because they’re not conspicuous. They blend into media

terrain that increasingly depicts stock-market fluctuations as profoundly

important. One TV commercial for CNBC’s web site poses a pointed question to

viewers: "It’s 11 a.m. Do you know where your stocks are?"

There’s

nothing wrong with playing the stock market. But there is something very wrong

with a media environment that equates investing with a quest for self-identity.

And politicians rarely encounter any tough questions when they crow about

lucrative high-tech investments — while dodging the reality that huge numbers

of people will always be excluded from any share of the profits.

At

his news conference on Oct. 14, President Clinton told the assembled

journalists: "If any of you folks could leave what you are doing, if you

weren’t so devoted to it, and go make more money probably doing something else,

you could get venture capital; you could come up with some idea. You have fooled

around with your computer so much you could probably start some Internet company

and it would be worth a couple of hundred million dollars in no time. And that

happens all the time, you know."

Yes,

it happens all the time — for a few. But it will never come close to happening

for most Americans. And the glorious achievements of venture capital do nothing

for the vast majority of the people on this planet, where poverty kills tens of

thousands of children every day.

"Ameritrade

is about the democratization of the capital markets," says the company’s

senior vice president, J. Peter Ricketts. He asserts that online investment is

"about that old American virtue of self-reliance, of believing in

yourself."

But

what are the prospects for a society where "believing in yourself"

becomes so narrowly defined?

_________________

Norman

Solomon’s latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

 

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