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What Happens When Wall Street's Mad Men Market to Women?

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A cursory glance at more modern Wall Street advertising reveals an industry still overstocked with Y chromosomes.

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The financial services industry has been trying to speak to women for 20 years, and it started with really beautiful pink and purple brochures. They haven't quite gotten it yet.
--Alexandra Lebenthal

Municipal bond maven Alexandra Lebenthal likely captured the sentiments of about 50% of the population with her above admonition for Madison Avenue in a January 20 appearance On the Money with Maria Bartiromo. With this being the single biggest week of the year in advertising, it seems an especially opportune time to examine how Wall Street's "Mad Men" market to the ladies.

For many shareholders of a certain age, the abiding memory of investment ads is John Houseman saying, in a TV spot in which seven men and not a single woman share air time: "They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it." ("They" being the white shoe brokerage firm of Smith Barney Harris Upham & Co, whose very name pays homage to four more men.) When the actor called it quits in 1986 after appearing in 18 commercials, Leo McKern took over, before he handed the baton to Patton -- or at least the all-American male famous for his biopic portrayal of the general, George C. Scott.

Such a clubby all-boys atmosphere is, along with Smith Barney itself as a stand-alone entity, long gone with the wind. However, a cursory glance at more modern Wall Street advertising reveals an industry still overstocked with Y chromosomes. Ameriprise Financial (NYSE:AMP), once home to Hollywood bad boy Dennis Hopper, seamlessly replaced him with alpha male Tommy Lee Jones. Chad Ridgeway portrayed a character so obnoxious in Scottrade commercials that he probably pulled off the impressive feat of infuriating both genders equally. He is now mercifully mainly off the air, but testosterone still dominates the company's marketing.

Turning to print, the current issue of Barron's has a two-page spread for Charles Schwab (NYSE:SCHW) on the inside cover that shows a guy on-the-go at an airport. Page eight pays homage to the "I'm With Scottrade" fellow, complete with feet up at a desk in front of a computer. A page 13 advertisement for Franklin Templeton Investments features the eponymous founding father, a dude who's been dead for 223 years. Proceeding to page 18, MFS highlights a pensive looking male with the tagline: "And you carry the weight of the investment world." On page 31, Barclays (NYSE:BCS) trumpets its iPath Fixed Income Exchange Traded Notes using the outline of an ostensibly asexual figure, but one which both sexes in my informal poll all instinctively took to be male, perhaps on account of its lack of long flowing locks. Pressing upon this poor fellow's grey matter are the weighty concerns of Europe, inflation, elections, policy shifts, tax reform, the fiscal cliff, and cross border risk. Its sales pitch: "Because you have enough on your mind." (Although I suspect Sigmund Freud, quizzed on what's uppermost on the mind of the average red-blooded American male, would put tax reform well down the list.) And so it goes – Invesco (NYSE:IVZ) PowerShares accompanied by the unmistakable silhouette of man, the Janus (NYSE:JNS) Flexible Bond Fund starring a male mountain climber, and Federated Investors (NYSE:FII) in the decidedly macho territory of a hardware store. ("Trying to build income with the same tools?" We can expand your selection.")

In the publication's entire 120 pages, I found only one female-only ad: an item for TD Ameritrade's (NYSE:AMTD) Fair Retirement Guidance that plays heavily upon hackneyed tropes and is buried on page 56 of the Market Week supplement. In it, a mop-topped girl -- aged approximately eight -- peers out from under her hand-drawn Crayola pictures of princesses and knights in shining armor. One only hopes the knights in question have nothing to do with Knight Capital Group (NYSE:KCG), the beleaguered trading outfit with which TD Ameritrade has a checkered history. The accompanying copy: "I want to live happily ever after."

Karen C. Altfest is among the financial world's more prominent women as Principal Advisor and Executive Vice President of Client Relations at Altfest Personal Wealth Management. The Park Avenue outfit manages approximately $1 billion in assets, and Worth magazine once anointed Altfest one of America's "Best Financial Advisors." When we spoke last week, she contended that much of Wall Street is indeed "clueless" in how it markets to women. There remains a lingering sense that the industry fails to take half of its audience altogether seriously, often tending to disrespect and talk down to them. Ms. Altfest maintains that many ads don't still "get" women, more often than not making them feel like a niche or minority (which statistically they are not.)

Men – again, at the risk of generalization – are often more inclined to respond to charts, graphs, and market technicals, whereas women tend to relate better to a more holistic approach. For them the "inside baseball" nature of many ads, an alphabet soup of ETFs and ETNs and SPDRs, is not an especially effective pitch.

As the organizer of programs such as Financially Savvy Woman and Woman's Financial $pa, Altfest has found that females are generally less likely to speak up when in large mixed gender groups. She went on to relay the example of her forum "How to read the Wall Street Journal," which was marketed to appeal to women. Initially, only five people registered. Others stayed away, perhaps thinking it would be an eye-glazing litany of stock tables. Once word got out that the focus would be on context and underlying stories, the seminar became a best seller catering to 70-strong standing room only crowds.

Altfest's advice to Madison Avenue? Essentially, Talk to Chuck less and listen to his sister more. Take time to study the different financial needs of women, offer a variety of investment education services, and stop simply seeing the fair sex as a target market.

To be sure, financial services commercials have, in the words of Virginia Slims, "Come a long way, baby," from John Houseman's all-male smoke-filled rooms of yesteryear. A Fidelity retirement ad currently in heavy rotation features a mom and her children, and the fund management firm highlights its employee Meredith Stoddard in other spots. Oppenheimer organizes "Women & Investing" seminar campaigns, while Bank of America's (NYSE:BAC) Merrill Lynch unit offers similar six-week educational outreach programs. Several years ago, Citigroup (NYSE:C) unveiled a touchy-freely ad campaign ("Hugs Are on a 52-Week High", pictured here) aimed at showcasing banking's supposedly softer side, and its Women & Co. service has now been going strong for a dozen years. On the other side of the pond, venerable pension firm Scottish Widows, a unit of Lloyds Banking Group (NYSE:LYG), first unveiled its very own modern day Dowager Countess on television 27 years ago. (See image)

Brokerages do appear to be placing less importance on gender-specific marketing and statement stuffers. Instead, the representation is increasingly of either a veritable rainbow coalition, or an idyllic wedding party pairing such as TD Ameritrade's Karen and Jeremiah. ("Bank Commercial couple," as Melissa McCarthy disdainfully describes the Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd characters in This Is 40, although she prefaced it with Carl Icahn's current favorite eight-letter barnyard epithet.)

One thing seems certain. With women, according TD Ameritrade itself, set to control $22 trillion in investable assets by 2020, it's safe to say the current Madison Avenue way of doing things ultimately won't be "all she wrote."

(See also: Is It True That Women Are More Cautious Investors?)
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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