Reviews > Culture

The culture of Mammon

Culture | Mass stock trading sets itself up for a fall, keychains go digital, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Wedgwood shooting," Oct. 2, 1999

Wall Street for the masses
Will America's newfound passion for the stock market ever subside? Not as long as the longest bull market in history continues. Recent ads for brokers have replaced the old trust-us-we're-intimidating tone with cash-grabbing frenzy. Discover Brokerage won an Emmy nomination for an ad showing a stock-trading tow-truck driver who just bought an island. "Someone's going to win the Lottery. Just Not You," beckons E-Trade. "We just think waiting for those magic numbers to hit might take a while. At E-Trade, we're used to things moving faster." The size of the services that feed these traders are staggering themselves. Nearly 7,500 websites serve the investment crowd, while the number of amateur investment clubs has doubled to 37,000 since 1995. More and more traders want to buy and sell off-hours, instead of living by Wall Street's clock. Today, such trading fervor is normal. About 43 percent of American households own stock now, according to New York University economist Edward Wolff, either directly or indirectly via retirement accounts and mutual funds. Comparisons with the roaring '20s stock boom are commonplace. Unfortunately, the gee-whizziness about the stock market could turn into a backlash if the economic weather turns cloudy. When Mark Barton lost his shirt and went on a killing spree through Atlanta, a wave of worry spread about daytrading, where stock deals hit a manic frenzy. That flurry lasted only a few weeks. Imagine what would happen if a recession came. Instead of blaming bankers or global economic meddlers or the normal economic cycle for the next downturn, the new generation of stock traders may take the fall. Experts rarely admit that their call can be at fault, so non-experts will be blamed. That means the home traders, their websites, and perhaps the Internet itself will be made the scapegoat if the trend reverses. As the Dow rises, the hype rises with it. If the Dow falls, the backlash will be hot and heavy. Unrehabilitated, but back on TV
Mike Tyson isn't Iron Mike anymore. He's more like tinfoil or recycled aluminum now. But he's back boxing. Now the ex-con and ex-heavyweight champion is scheduled to fight Orlin Norris in Las Vegas on October 23. The 1990s haven't been fun for Mr. Tyson. He served three years of hard time in Indiana on a rape conviction. This year he saw the inside of a Maryland jail, where he had served 3H months for assaulting two motorists after a minor three-car accident-he hit one guy in the jaw and kicked one in the groin; court papers called it "road rage." And his boxing career should never have restarted after the infamous Bite Fight with Evander Holyfield. But the MGM Grand and Showtime have come calling and Mr. Tyson is heading back into the ring one more time. This time he's gained weight, is deep in debt, and is searching for some semblance of respect. Yet one thing he isn't is sorry. At the traditional rah-rah press conference announcing the fight, Mr. Tyson blamed everybody else for his criminal past. "What should happen is there shouldn't be racism, there shouldn't be dysfunctional alcoholics that are reporters," he yammered, saying, "it's politically correct to put me in jail, to send me to prison." For a brief moment a touch of responsibility burst through the bravado: "I have no man to blame but myself," he said. "Other people contributed to it, but I have to carry the weight of a fool by myself." This latest comeback may be the fighter's last big moment in the limelight before slipping into obscurity. Tyson-Norris isn't attracting anywhere near the publicity of this month's Oscar De La Hoya/Felix Trinidad superfight. Mr. Tyson is only 33, but his future is bleak. Eventually even the greediest promoters will be done with him and his antics. Then what will he do? He will be just another ex-con; unless his heart changes, a recidivist statistic waiting to happen. You are being bar-coded
Does your favorite store have a tag on you? Stores ranging from Blockbuster to Rite-Aid are taking their discount cards and membership IDs and shrinking them to keychain tags. That way you'll be more likely to use them-and they can see what you're buying. The PETCO chain, for example, has 5 million people in its PALS (PETCO Animal Lovers Save) program. It keeps members loyal with discounts and uses bar codes to track what people buy. And keytags keep customers from pulling their cards out of the wallets and tossing them in a drawer. The discount card concept itself has some up in arms about their privacy, especially after the Safeway grocery chain rolled them out. After all, the home office wants to know who you are, what you buy, and how often you buy it. Nevertheless, more stores are using them, more people are picking them up, and more customer data gets scanned from the bar codes. Soon people may find their keychains lined with these tags. These programs are the crossroads of modern marketing: If you buy diapers regularly, the supermarket can tailor ads to you that pitch baby products. The store can reward you for being loyal to them just as an airline rewards frequent flyers. Yet the company may care more about your data than you. By mining the data, all sorts of trends can be followed. Do customers buy a cartload of other things when they buy diapers or do they just grab them and go? Are those usually sold on weekends or weekdays? Do working moms buy one brand while housewives buy another? Like the online cookies commonly used to track Internet users (see World, May 29), cards and keytags are a tradeoff, although customers have been electronically tracked since the early days of direct marketing. No one knows how many cards are in use, and more of them are showing up everywhere as stores try to identify, monitor, and market to their best customers.

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