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Online Brokers: Tapping into the Investor in Us
Most of these ads, especially E*Trade and Ameritrade, make you understand what their business is all about
When brokerage companies make ads for TV, the result is usually ugly. The one I remember best is: "My broker is E.F. Hutton, and E.F. Hutton says..." followed by silence. Eternal silence, since E.F. Hutton doesn't even exist anymore.
Then there were those offensive Dean Witter ads: The grainy footage of a fleshy middle-aged man talking to a group of other men in what might be the smoking room of a 1920s yacht club. Fake clips. Fake Mr. Witter (if, indeed, there was a Mr. Witter).
The advent of online brokers promised to make brokerage ads more palatable. These folks are upstarts -- young, and prematurely rich. Make us laugh, I cried.
Well guess what? They have. With the exception of Charles Schwab and TD Waterhouse, both of whom appeared to have let their CEOs write the punch lines of commercials, the online brokerage industry has come up with some funny, powerful, memorable ads.
AN ENERGIZER BUNNY. It's a good thing, since we'll be seeing them a lot. Online brokers are in a cutthroat business filled with dozens of firms all trying to establish an identity -- each vulnerable to losing a customer at the click of a mouse. Imagine knowing that as you compete with a bevy of brokers who are spending hundreds of millions on TV.
The best group of ads comes from market leader E*Trade, whose showcase commercial features former Playboy Bunny Anna Nicole Smith doing her best imitation of that other famous rabbit, the Energizer Bunny. The ad starts off as a fake movie trailer for a film called Blow'd Up starring Smith as a clever antiterrorist agent who foils a mad bomber whose modus operandi is to blow up garden gnomes and hamburgers. Suddenly, the trailer fades into the TV screen of a man sitting at his laptop PC. He types a sell order into his E*Trade account for the studio that made the film.
Another memorable E*Trade ad shows a handsome European man whose flimsy swimsuit barely covers his impressive attributes rubbing the fetid bunions of a sugar momma. Now's the time, it fairly screams, to make your own fortune rather than rely on others to support you. Both ads rely on entertainment value to get across the message that E*Trade is at least worth a look.
STREET-WISE? A similar attempt by Charles Schwab falls flat. Schwab has built its ads around the concept that athletes aren't really that dumb after all. The Denver Broncos' Shannon Sharpe, for instance, lectures New York Giant's cornerback Jason Sehorn on how to calculate a price-earnings ratio. in another, tennis phenom Anna Kournikova does the same for a side-judge. Basketball star Dikembe Mutumbo tells a CEO about a better way to float his debt. And skier Picabo Street instructs her personal trainer on market corrections.
While each of these commercials is slightly funny, most brokerage customers are sophisticated enough to know that athletes aren't necessarily dumb beasts -- so the intended irony isn't exactly overpowering. And the production quality of the Schwab commercials is dismal.
TD Waterhouse makes a similar miscalculation by using celebrities as straight men in its commercials. In one, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson reveals that he's going to make a trade. LA sports writers go into overdrive until they realize that he means a stock trade using his TD Waterhouse account. But guys! Who cares what Phil Jackson does with his online trading account? And why is Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who retired a decade ago, sitting by the phone awaiting Coach Jackson's call? And what is it, after all, that differentiates TD Waterhouse from other online brokers?
CONQUER THE MARKET. I could find only two online brokerages that don't use humor in their ads -- but they tended to be unintentionally funny. For instance, a laughably serious DLJDirect ad features a bald executive, presumably an investment banker, rushing to meetings carrying a Gucci briefcase and dressed in an Italian suit. Then there's the Datek ad that features a mob shattering the glass at the Stock Exchange and presumably taking over the joint. I would prefer to know how I can profit from Datek, not how I can join the crowd.
The ad that tops all others, however, features Stuart -- the kid with the ginger mohawk wearing shorts and Chuck Taylor sneakers who trades through an Ameritrade account. "I don't want to beat the market, I want to strangle it and shake every last penny out of its pockets", he tells his girlfriend's father. If nothing else, Stuart creates a reaction. Everyone I talked to either identified somehow with this repulsive character -- or hated him. Either way, of all the brokerage ads this season, Stuart's the most effective. After watching him, you know what Ameritrade is -- and you aren't likely to forget.
By Sam Jaffe in New York _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
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