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.
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
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
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.
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.
bothering to mention the risks, most of the advertisements touting the joys of
online trading cannot withstand scrutiny. But they’re not supposed to.
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
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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."
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.
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
what are the prospects for a society where "believing in yourself"
becomes so narrowly defined?
Solomon’s latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."