When Online Trading Offers a Reason to Believe

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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