Online Trading

Norman Solomon

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 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. 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.

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 depict stock-market fluctuations as profoundly important. One TV
commercial for CNBC’s web site poses a pointed question to viewers: "It’s
11:00 AM. 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.
Politicians rarely encounter any tough questions when they crow about lucrative
high- tech investments—while dodging the reality that most people will always
be excluded from any share of the profits.

At his news
conference on October 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."

What are the
prospects for a society where "believing in yourself" becomes so narrowly

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