by Norman Solomon
American Reporter Correspondent
March 15, 2001
WASHINGTON -- When the Ameritrade company launched a $200 million marketing drive to explain the joys of online trading in autumn 1999, abarrage 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. Whenspring 2000 began, plenty of satisfied new customers were glad to beplaying 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 withle= ss frequency and less exuberance. They seem to be more targeted atlong-term= professional investors. Meanwhile, journalists speak ruefully,sometimes in= morose tones, about the digital gold that has turned tosilicon ashes in th= e mouths of America's stock-buying public.
Sure, "caveat emptor" and all that. Everyone should have known ther= isks. The same can be said for millions of consumers who have let smileycig= arette advertisements coax them into smoking. But if the online tradingads carried any warning labels at all, they were in very small print.
On a daily basis, CNN's "Moneyline" and many other national TVprogr= ams stoked the buying frenzy. It was all quite lucrative -- bringingin reco= rd levels of commissions for brokerage houses and high ratings formarket-fi= xated network shows. Only spoilsports warned that disasterloomed, and they didn't get nearly as much air time as the boosters.
Today, news reports tell about formerly soaring dot-com executivesw= ho have seen their multimillions (or billions) turn into Nasdaq rubble. Eve= n in burned-out condition, the stars of cyberspace get plenty of mediaatten= tion. Less common are the stories that focus on rank-and-fileinvestors who lost most of their life's savings.
We still aren't getting much coverage of some grim details. Forinst= ance: How were so many people drawn in by the warm-and-cuddly imagesof inve= stment-by-mouse as a means to financial security and personalglory? What wa= s it about the prevailing media environment that persuadedmillions of Ameri= cans to put money they couldn't afford to lose intohigh-tech stocks that we= re incapable of sustaining vastly inflated shareprices?
Eighteen months ago, Ameritrade was boasting in a news releasethat its huge ad blitz would go after every sector of society: "Thecampaign's ta= rget audience is more psychographic than demographic, cuttingacross all age= s, races, professions and income levels."
All "income levels" included people with close to zero disposablein= come. The online brokerage firms proved adept at separating a lot ofthose i= ndividuals from their money.
Whatever their economic class, many in the cross hairs stood toforf= eit more than dollars. To the extent that they bought into ad pitchesand br= oader media mania for online trading, people were also vulnerable tobait-an= d-switch tactics that manipulated insecurities in the realm ofself-esteem. With stocks climbing, a slogan like "Believe in yourself" wasapt to seem li= ke a welcome boost, a pat on the back. But when self-regardis pegged to sto= ck prices, what happens when the market tanks?
Embedded in the osten= sible affirmation was a much less humanisticmessage: Believe in wealth. And= no matter where the market is headed,that's a message that ends up doing e= normous damage -- inflicted with thehelp of ongoing media themes -- portray= ing a person's capital buildup as akey indicator of worth as a human being.
Let's face it: From splashy magazine features to commercials andent= ertainment shows on television to laudatory news profiles ofventure-capital= ist billionaires, mass media outlets are frequently toutingthe accumulation= of financial assets as the pinnacle of achievement.
Viewed from ano= ther planet, the basic character of these dominantmedia values would be cle= ar. But we're accustomed to this constantpropaganda. We're encouraged to th= ink it's normal. And the costs -- forindividuals and for our society -- go well beyond any losses in the stockmarket.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "TheHabits of Highly Deceptive Media."