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2HRS2GO: Reeve ad has a nice message, but investors want results

I've been thinking about the Nuveen Investments ad the last couple of days.

You probably know what I'm talking about: the Super Bowl spot with Christopher Reeve walking. For me, Nuveen's display of CGI prowess was one of only three standout moments (the others being the Cat Herder ad from EDS and Money Out the Wazoo from E*Trade) in an otherwise forgettable three hours of advertising. At least the second half of the game itself was interesting.



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John Nuveen & Co.'s larger point -- investing leads to good things for everyone, not just stockholders -- is hard to contest and I'm not going to try. And to give Nuveen credit, the company's mutual funds do invest heavily in health care -- according to Nuveen's website, 23.3 percent of the Nuveen Ritterhouse Growth Fund and 11.2 percent of the Nuveen Growth and Income Stock Fund are tied up in health companies of one sort or another.

(Probably not for altruistic reasons, but still, at least the money indirectly funds medical research, whatever the true motivation might be).

But most people I've spoken with about the Reeve spot found it "spooky", to quote a friend of mine. It left ESPN.com's Tuesday Morning Quarterback speechless. The special effects magic and plain weirdness of the whole image overrode the underlying investment view.

My initial reaction was in line with criticism from some disability rights advocates. That movement has long argued for an emphasis on improving current quality of life for the disabled, rather than holding out unrealistic hopes for miracle cures. No one says medical research should be discontinued, but it's a question of what should be emphasized in public attitudes and policy.

Proponents of that viewpoint believe the Reeve spot presents yet another ray of false hope; I'm not in a wheelchair, but I thought the same thing. After two days of mulling it over, I sort of maintain the same stance, but you can reasonably argue there's nothing wrong with bringing attention to the development of remedies.

I certainly won't complain if more money goes into spinal cord research. And if the stock market funds a lasting solution for people with severe paralysis, I'll happily applaud.

Here's my bigger problem: the advertisement didn't work for me. For that matter, neither did any of the other Super Bowl ads for investment firms or dot-com companies.

Most dot-com ads were dull. E*Trade's "We wasted $2 million" was a clunker. Computer.com looked truly amateurish, instead of merely parodying the idea. Robert Frost's poem has been recited so many times it's a cliche; Monster.com would have done better by saving itself money and re-running last year's classic bit with the kids.

Were there other dot-com ads? I think so, but I can't remember them.

EDS as cat rustlers was a funny but puzzling vision. If you didn't know what EDS did before the ad, you still didn't know when it was over. And if you do know about the IT services and consulting industry, why put your IT problems in the hands of people who seem themselves as silly cowboys?

E*Trade's promise of dollars coming out your anus also provoked a laugh, but was irritating in the same way as other brokerage ads that feature a tow truck guy with his own island or a kid with his own helicopter. No one makes that much money trading online, and while I realize most people recognize it as just exaggerated hype, the idea of becoming Bill Gates by trading online remains absurd.

On a broader note, though E*Trade produced an amusing bit, the time of raising awareness about online trading is over. Tell people why they should pick your brokerage instead of anyone else. E*Trade didn't do that.

Was E*Trade building brand awareness or emphasizing a certain attitude? Maybe you do that if you're a soft drink company or a brewery, but it seems out of place for a broker. And what kind of image did E*Trade give us? "We'll make you rich."

Big deal. Everyone says that. Instead, try explaining why we should use E*Trade instead of Ameritrade, DLJdirect, Siebert, J.B. Oxford, Merrill Lynch, PaineWebber, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Online ... You get the idea.

Same thing for Nuveen. Yes, investing is a good thing for many reasons. Most people already believe that, judging by the stock market's explosion in recent years.

Now why Nuveen? With all due respect to human nature, appealing to our better halves rarely works with investors. One look at the crazy trading action surrounding biotech stocks tells you people are in it for the bucks, rather than the biology.

That's neither good nor bad, but that's the way it is. How many people do you think decided to invest with Nuveen after seeing Reeve's head atop a walking body? Now if Nuveen produced a chart showing superior returns, that might be something.

Perhaps the company refrained from that for practical reasons. Class A shares of the Ritterhouse Growth Fund, to use one example, have produced annualized returns of 14.85 percent since inception, including sales charges, compared to an average annual yield of 16.33 percent for the S&P 500 over the last 10 years.

In the end, that's how any investment company's worth is judged.

Other issues:

  • Amazon.com
  • (Nasdaq: AMZN) Not to sound like a broken record, but when will this company reach its product goals, so it can scale back on investments and make money? Analysts used to paint Amazon as a company devoted to becoming the entertainment king, which is fine, that's not a bad focus. But lately we're hearing about power tools and other do-it-yourself equipment and now housewares? This is starting to sound like a portfolio for the 1970s and 80s. Amazon fan and Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget likes the latest move, for whatever that's worth. 22GO>