Bonfire Of The Ad Agencies

Never thought you'd envy a tow-truck driver? Neither did Bob Kerstetter or Steve Stone. But when two of the cofounders of Black Rocket, a two-year-old San Francisco ad agency, designed a campaign for Discover Brokerage, they created a working-class hero for the '90s. The idea arose when they looked at Discover's demographics: instead of fat cats, they found many downscale, low-stakes stock clickers. "What if you found out your plumber invests online?" Stone mused, sketching out an early idea in which "Gordon Gekko meets Roseanne's husband." When the spot hit the air last fall, the plumber had morphed into Travis the Tow-Truck Driver, who unloads a series of surprises on his passenger, a snobbish BMW owner. Yes, Travis invests online. That photo of an island swinging from the dashboard? Yep, Travis owns it. "Technically, it's a country," Travis deadpans. The passenger's eyes look aghast with envy.

Our finest Zeitgeist chroniclers--Tom Wolfe, Oliver Stone--haven't yet tackled the late '90s gold rush. Until they do, the best pop-cultural representation of how overnight riches are transforming old notions of wealth can be found in ads for Internet services. Many of them, especially commercials for online brokerages like Discover, E*Trade and Ameritrade, suggest that the psychology of the day-trading market shares much in common with--as you might expect--lotteries. "If you look at lottery ads, they almost always use lower- middle-class people who end up dining with the Duchess of Windsor," notes University of Florida professor James B. Twitchell, who's written on advertising and consumer culture. As the ads spawn imitators, TV is constantly reminding us that there's a new--and far easier--way to make money out there. ("If your broker's so great," asks an E*Trade spot, showing a broker sweating over his phone, "how come he still has to work?")

Some regulators are fretting about all the hype. "When firms again and again tell investors that online investing can make them rich, it creates unrealistic expectations," SEC chairman Arthur Levitt said in firing off a warning shot in a May speech. So far the ad industry has responded in unison: lighten up. The ads are jokes, exaggerations, intended to grab eyeballs. "People aren't naive enough to think all they need to do is open a $2,000 account and in a month they'll have the riches to buy an island," says John Yost, Black Rocket's third founder.

Still, the tough talk has had an impact. Last week ad-industry honchos met to discuss the criticism; regulators may hold formal meetings later this year. Ameritrade pulled an edgy spot called "Mama's Gotta Trade," in which Mom clicks her way to a $1,700 profit in just minutes. When Black Rocket unveils its newest Discover work this week, there's no wealth in sight. Other firms seek credibility by airing cautionary ads. In one spot, E*Trade shows a stock soaring, a worker who owns it quitting his job, and then the stock tanking. The tag line: try not to get carried away. Hmmm. It seems a little late for that.