The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street This Week

Jeeves' creepers; AT&T Comcast bombast; show us the Dorman; weight loss dross; macaroni and sleaze.
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1. Tonight We're Going to Advertise Like It's 1999

Some people need to look at their high-school yearbook to get all misty-eyed and nostalgic. But for us at the Five Dumbest Things Research Lab, all it takes is an old copy of

The Industry Standard

.

So imagine our surprise this week when, on a group outing to Manhattan's Upper West Side, we passed by a well-preserved relic from Wall Street's distant past: an outdoor advertisement for an Internet portal. Yes, there it was, slapped on the side of a pay-telephone kiosk at the intersection of Broadway and 78th Street: an ad trumpeting the merits of Internet information site

Ask Jeeves

(ASKJ)

.

The youngsters in the lab -- kids for whom "InfoSeek" and "WebCrawler" might as well be AOL screen names -- stared wide-eyed, agape. Search-engine advertisements on the street? Didn't these cease to be long ago, around the time that Latin and rotary telephones died out?

Well, as we studied the ad -- one in which the Jeeves butler-type character promises, "Find anything you need in a New York

second!

" -- we began to think that not only was this ad remarkable, but it was remarkably Dumb.

A few reasons popped to mind. First off, there's a good reason nobody's pitching portals in outdoor ads (or on TV, or on radio, for that matter) anymore. As a few hundred bankrupt companies have taught us, placing ads for Internet content companies anywhere but on the Internet can prove to be extremely inefficient. If you don't believe us, we have a few reels' worth of Super Bowl dot-com ads to show you.

What Jeeves?

The second reason: Nobody in New York -- we mean nobody -- uses the expression "New York minute," mock-altered in the ad to read "New York second." The expression, which usually means something more like a second than a minute, is strictly for out-of-towners, just like the expression "New York-style delicatessen."

Finally, what's with this "New York second," anyway? Yeah, we know it's supposed to be a speeded-up version of an N.Y. minute, but it's already speeded up. It's like changing "Texas tea" in

The Beverly Hillbillies

theme song to "Texas oil," or calling Harvard "the Harvard of the Ivy League."

Be all that as it may, after we called up Ask Jeeves to ask Jeeves what the heck is going on, we had to admit there was some method to this madness.

For starters, the advertisements aren't randomly placed. The campaign is running only in New York, explains a spokeswoman, and only on or near the route of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. That's because one of the balloons in the product-placement parade is the Ask Jeeves butler himself, floating in for the final year of a three-year contract. The company decided to "leverage awareness" of the balloon, as they say in marketingspeak.

Well, what about this "New York minute" thing -- not only mangled, but completely foreign to the home audience? "Nobody says that," we said. "My grandfather does," replied the spokeswoman, adding that he's a native New Yorker.

OK, how much sense did it make to cut that Macy's balloon deal in the first place? "Of all the many marketing things we've done over the years, I would say this is the best investment we've ever made," said the spokeswoman. "Oh, yeah?" we asked. "Prove it. How much did it cost you?"

She wouldn't say, citing the contract with Macy's that forbids discussing its cost. On this particular subject, Jeeves isn't talking.

2. Smart Companies, Foolish Press Releases

What's the proper way to refer to a company's name when it was never really the company's name? We're still trying to figure this one out.

Yes, we've spent nearly the whole week puzzling over a press release issued by

Comcast

(CMCSA) - Get Report

on the occasion of its Monday merger with

AT&T's

(T) - Get Report

AT&T Broadband

. In the Monday press release at issue, the bulked-up company refers to itself as the "new Comcast Corporation, formerly named AT&T Comcast Corporation."



Which is fine. Except for the part where Comcast, as far as we can tell, was never formerly named AT&T Comcast Corporation.

See, Comcast was always Comcast, and AT&T Broadband was always AT&T Broadband. AT&T Comcast was simply the name that Comcast and AT&T said the new company was going to be named. But at the last minute, we suspect, somebody figured out that AT&T had about as much brand value in the cable business as

Enron

has in the pantyhose business. We guess that "AT&T Broadband" was nothing more than a premerger face-saving exercise for the folks at AT&T Broadband, whose presence is being wiped from the broadband behemoth faster than a New York minute.

For their part, the companies say they changed the name "to eliminate potential customer and market confusion."

Whatever. Comcast calling itself the former AT&T Comcast is like Al Gore calling himself the former next president of the United States.

3. Holiday Tips for the Dorman

Speaking of disorienting press releases emanating from the AT&T Comcast deal, we're still reeling from the spin-off of this Tuesday's masterwork from AT&T. We're talking, of course, about the curiously titled, "New Chairman and CEO Marks AT&T's First Day of Trading by Meeting With Employees and Emphasizing Customers."

It all started with that title there, which raised the unanswerable questions of how one goes about emphasizing customers, and what one wears while emphasizing customers.

("Sweetie, do you think I should wear my blue suit for emphasizing customers, or should I go for the gray sport jacket?")

Things got nuttier in the second sentence of the press release, which Ma Bell issued to commemorate new Chairman and Chief Executive David Dorman's first full day on the job leading the newly abridged AT&T. "Joined by his leadership team," we read, "he charted a course of unwavering customer focus and commitment and called on employees to prove the company's merit by executing in the market, every day."


Huh? "Leadership team"? "Customer focus"?? And what about that "Executing in the market, every day"???

This is supposed to inspire the troops? Come on. This is the sort of meaningless corporatespeak that guided AT&T down from a split-adjusted $96.25 to the mid-$20s over the past year. After all, what company out there would say it isn't all in favor of customer focus?

But stuff like that runs all the way to the end of the press release, to the part where it reads, "'Today is a great day for AT&T customers, shareowners and employees,' said Dorman. 'We are enthusiastic about the future. I know AT&T has what it takes to capitalize on its many opportunities and build shareowner value.'"

Admittedly, we have no personal experience working inside AT&T. But if we kept hearing speeches like that, we'd be out of there in -- yup -- a New York minute.

4. Honest Advertising, While U Weight

Kudos to the Federal Trade Commission, which this week took steps toward cleaning up weight-loss advertising. Now if the FTC could only do the same thing for commercials making claims that are even more exotic.

See, on Monday the FTC held a workshop to explore new approaches in reducing false claims in advertisements for weight-loss products. The idea, says the FTC, is to come up with a short list of claims that could never be true, no matter what the product being advertised. Thus, for example, no weight- loss dietary supplement, device or service could be said to enable people to lose "substantial" weight without cutting calories and/or increasing physical activity.

All well and good. But what about those ads documented by the research lab claiming to help male investors increase the size of their, uh, personal portfolio? The ads that used to run on

CNBC

,

until the lab called attention to them, and

later ran in

BusinessWeek

?

Howard Beales, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, says he can't discuss whether or not the FTC has an investigation going on in a particular area. But, he says, the commission could use the same conceptual approach it's taking in weight loss to deal with other families of false claims.

Beales also suggests that the FTC went after weight loss first because that's where the action is. "The thing about weight loss," he told the research lab, "is there's such an epidemic of the blatantly false advertising despite very high levels of enforcement."

Yes. Despite what you might judge from the stock market, instead of making gains in certain areas, Americans would rather take losses all over.

5. Small Kraft Warning

You know, we thought we had a pretty good handle on all the hazards we face in this crazy world. Then we read about the product-tampering bill that passed the House on Friday.

Now on its way to President Bush's pen, the legislation criminalizes a type of tampering of which we had never heard: the placement of "communications, handbills, notices or advertising in or on a consumer product prior to its sale without the consent of the manufacturer, distributor or retailer," according to

Security Management

.

See, apparently

Kraft

(KFT)

and

General Mills

(GIS) - Get Report

each report at least 20 incidents or so per year in which somebody decides to put racist, anti-Semitic, extremist or pornographic literature into boxes for future consumers of macaroni and cheese to read once they get home from the store and prepare to put dinner in the microwave.

We at the research lab are on the fence on this. Should such distribution practices be illegal? Or are they just a way to execute in the market, every day?