Mar
15
2001

Bad News Bears Change Tone Of Media Script

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.