How old are you, again?

Big mutual fund advertisers seem to be puzzled by exactly how old their target market is. The trend in fund advertising nowadays is not so much a strict numbers sell - after all, few funds have any positive numbers to talk about - but more a psychological, soft-sell approach. Surely, one could argue that all advertising is psychological, but these messages are flat out limp. Some of them are downright silly, while others seem to be trying to appeal to our inner child.

Mass Mutual Financial Group sums up this generational confusion with its recent ad featuring a Chutes & Ladders game board, flanked by two words: Tyke and Tycoon. In other words, you have a choice: Tyke or Tycoon.

How many tycoons do you know who sit down to a nice game of Chutes & Ladders every once in a while? This ad isn't meant for tycoons; it's meant for the lot of us who aren't. And with most investors having lost a sizable portion of their retirement assets, being likened to a tyke isn't exactly a friendly thought.

Further down, the ad reads, "With Mass Mutual, you're ready for life's ups and downs." Apparently, we are all now shooting down the chute.

Modeled after the Hundred Acre Woods, Vanguard's new ad could be a page ripped right out of Winnie the Pooh. The ad, an open storybook, shows a muted-color palette illustration characteristic of Pooh. A man in a suit and his wife tiptoe behind a large tree. The story begins: "How a couple of investors avoided being bitten by taxes by choosing a fund that knew how to hold still." Avoiding taxes is one thing, but what's with the moral lesson? Naturally, the story ends with Vanguard saving the day.

In an ad for Spiders, exchange traded funds listed on AMEX, there's also a lesson. But it's not Spiderman coming to the rescue. Alongside an eerily lifelike depiction of a creeping spider, the ad reads, "Along came a spider and sat down beside her and enlightened Miss Muffet as to the many benefits of a strongly diversified portfolio." Enlightenment? A Buddhist spider? Well, that's an interesting take on the child's tale.

Eschewing Guilt & Distrust

One common thread here seems to be a push back toward childhood innocence, a definitive move away from the guilt and distrust threading through the financial industry of late. An American Century ad showcasing a peanut butter sandwich, the quintessential lunch for American kids, seems to hone in on the palpable discomfort emanating from all the scandalous, corporate hoopla, and the back-to-basics reaction.

"Every day, our founder has the same lunch. It isn't lobster tail." American Century's ad tells the fairly unbelievable tale of how the firm's founder, James E. Stowers, Jr., sits in the cafeteria to eat his homely peanut butter sandwich and always saves his paper sack for the next day.

Amidst the scrutiny surrounding the lofty salaries of certain execs, American Century is apparently trying to appeal to the down-to-earth sensibilities of its investors. The ad concludes, "Over time, we've grown, but two things have remained constant. His lunch. And our values ... The proof is in the peanut butter."

An idea that sticks with you, or just sticks to the roof of your mouth?

Even so, there seems to be another thread, a subliminal one, seeking to quell existing preconceptions. What are funds trying to hammer in our heads? Funds aren't bad. We're good. Corrupt higher-ups are the anomaly. We have your interests at heart, really. We know what's best, really. Why should we trust them? They eat peanut butter sandwiches, for goodness sake.

Sports Mania

When in doubt, sports, sports, and more sports. At least that's what parents try when appealing to their pubescent boys. Wachovia Securities' new ad featuring an ice hockey player asks, "What can a goalie mask teach us about raising capital?" Give up? "It can be intimidating. Most effective when custom fitted. Who's behind it is often the difference between success and failure."

You don't want to be a failure, do you? Lucky for you, Wachovia's behind the mask.

If all else fails, there's always tough love. Barclays Global Investors utilizes this approach in its print ad showing a small photograph of an abandoned office. The layout of the ad, however, seems to put more weight on the text than the image itself. It says, "When deciding between individual stocks and sectors, keep in mind this little fact: Sectors Don't Go Out of Business."

There's no doubt these tactics are manipulative. But isn't that what therapy is? Manipulations of the mind, molding our troubled thinking to think away our troubles. It seems these ads are not so much an appeal to our inner child, but an appeal to our adolescent insecurities. We're not yet sure who we are. We don't quite know what we want. But don't worry. The nice funds will lead us down the right road.

Soap Opera Sap

Therapists beware. Funds may be taking over, and the coaxing is taking on different forms. There's soap opera sap, for one. What? You haven't seen it? It's all the rage. It's called "Guiding Beth," sponsored by Charles Schwab. Beth, a subtly stylish woman in her early thirties. She's courteous. She's smart. She's likable. But she's been burned in the past, and she's not so trusting anymore. This is her story. The names, evidently, have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

Beth moved her money to Schwab but felt guilty for betraying her broker until she met Dr. Schwab, who taught her to think of herself. Beth had a breakthrough. In one cathartic release, years of pent-up rage toward the man who haunted her were purged.

Underscoring her breakthrough, the ad shares Beth's new mantra. "I want what's best for me, not my broker." Apparently, Beth screamed this out at the top of her lungs, surprising Dr. Schwab, who was used to her genteel reserve. In fact, Beth surprised herself. Further down, Beth appears to have composed herself. "I feel like I can trust [Schwab] to give me advice based on what my needs are," she says.

Too sappy? Then try a little personal empowerment from Oppenheimer Funds. In a recent Oppenheimer TV ad, the intensity of a swimmer competing in a meet, dramatized through contrasting shadows, embodies perseverance, strength and will to the extreme. The voiceover speaks with equal intensity. "Stay the course. Keep your focus. Reaching any long-term goal requires stamina and commitment. The same holds true for your financial future."

Finally, for those who have trouble making up their minds, there's always the infomercial approach.

A recent Fidelity print ad tells us, we are "thinking animals." Another waxes rhetorically philosophical about one's personal goals: "Successful investing has always been about asking questions. And choosing the right people to help you answer them has never been more important." The ad's header teases, "The answer to most of [your questions] is carefully balanced portfolio.'" Why choose Fidelity? "Because you're not just invested. You're personally invested."

Merrill Lynch's campaign, which could be dubbed Total Merrill, takes a similar personal tack in its ad: "How do you see your financial life? Your investments are here. Your retirement there. Seen separately and managed separately, your financial life can only take you so far.

"At the heart is a personal relationship."

Mr. Tycoon

Hear that snap, snap of the fingers? That's Mr. Tycoon. He wants what he asked for, and he wants it now. No red tape. In fact, nothing sticky at all. He wants the hard facts. He wants the straight sell. And then he wants to go play some golf.

In another advertisement courtesy of American Century, he is. The ad features a golfer taking a swing on a picturesque course. But the golf balls couldn't be further from the hole. The ad reads, "Our process is consistent and repeatable. If only your swing were that way." How's that for hard facts? Insulting the client, real smart.

Ariel Mutual Funds' ad just might just be the ticket for the straight-to-the-point sell. "Ready ... Set ... Retire!" is all it says. For those who prefer something more interpretive, Strong offers a slightly subtler message: "Make Your Money Work Harder." Period.

Tykes. Tycoons. Bullet-point sell. Philosophical sell. The climate of mutual fund advertising today dances around difficult subjects, with little of it talking about performance or directly about money.

How long investors are going to buy into these oblique messages on the heels of losing money for three straight years and counting, is probably a good question for fund advertising and marketing honchos to ask themselves.

After all, investors are thinking animals.

Copyright 2003 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

(http://www.thomsonmedia.com)

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