The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street This Week - TheStreet

The Five Dumbest Things on Wall Street This Week

AOL up all night; two bits for 50 Cent; secure the perimeter; Urban Outfitters' publicity game; selling the double sawbuck.
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1. Live and Let Diner

Nothing is guaranteed to provoke a major media company into a righteous, indignant huff like someone monkeying with a copyrighted work of art.

Unless, of course, it's the major media company that's doing the monkeying. In that case, that same media company's attitude is, "Aw, it was just harmless fun. We were just fooling around. Lighten up."

Today's case in point: multimedia colossus

AOL Time Warner

(AOL)

.

This is the company, you'll recall, whose Warner Bros. studio less than two years ago sent a barrage of threatening letters to kids who dared set up unofficial Harry Potter fan sites on the Web. According to press reports, in one case Warner sent a 15-year-old English girl a letter asking her to hand over a Web address because her site was likely to cause "consumer confusion" and dilution of Warner's intellectual property rights. Warner threatened legal action if she didn't quickly respond.

Fast-forward to just a few weeks ago, when we at the Five Dumbest Things Research Lab picked up one of those ubiquitous America Online software CD-ROMs from a display at our local post office.

The first thing we noticed was that AOL had decorated the cardboard folder holding the CD-ROM with a classic American painting: Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks,"

the famous study of four people around the counter of a diner. Gosh, we thought -- kudos to AOL for acknowledging an iconic American work of art.

But then we noticed something else: As high-class a painting as "Nighthawks" was, someone at AOL evidently had decided it wasn't high-class enough. So there, in the nighttime scene that the late Edward Hopper painted 61 years ago, someone from AOL had added something new: a laptop computer sitting on the counter, with its screen prominently displaying AOL's triangular logo.

'Night AOLs'
Sprinkle some pixel dust on the bar

Have you no sense of decency, AOL?

A few questions popped into our minds here at the research lab. One: Was the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns and displays the original, a party to this travesty? Two: Whose laptop is this supposed to be, anyway? No one seems to be paying attention to it. And three: Does anyone at AOL have the slightest clue? You see, AOL relentlessly portrays itself as a tool for communication and community-creating. Yet the standard interpretation of "Nighthawks" is unrelentingly bleak. We quote from the Art Institute's Web site: "The four anonymous and uncommunicative night owls seem as separate and remote from the viewer as they are from one another."

No, Hopper's diner doesn't seem to be quite the place for AOL Instant Messenger and SuperBuddy icons.

The first thing we learned, once we started asking our questions, was that no one at the Art Institute knew that AOL had done this to "Nighthawks." "We're grateful that you brought this to our attention," said spokeswoman Eileen Harakal. This particular incident, she said, "really does cause us to reconsider and look at this kind of use."

AOL did indeed have permission to use the image, said Harakal, but she wasn't sure of the terms of this particular agreement -- whether AOL was allowed to add its laptop to the scene, or superimpose a larger version of its logo on a corner of the painting.

"We're constantly trying to weigh the responsible use of copyright," Harakal said, "vs. the income we derive from selling rights."

That being said, Harakal -- and here she's speaking for herself, not for the Art Institute -- doesn't believe that the scene in "Nighthawks" is as bleak and lonely as the standard interpretation. Granted, the people in the painting aren't talking to one another. But they're sitting there together. They're sharing coffee. They're in a warm, bright place instead of the cold, empty street. "There is, for that split second in time, a sense of community," she says.

Well, that's one opinion. Here's another: "It's outrageous," says Barbara Haskell, a curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which inherited Hopper's estate after his wife died.

Hopper "is able to encapsulate an essential aspect of the human condition -- a sense of isolation, of unfulfilled longing for human affection," says Haskell. What AOL, with its world of interconnectedness and instant community, is trying to suggest "is the exact opposite of Hopper's art," she says.

"It's no longer Hopper's artwork," she says. "They, in a sense, have stolen the image."

And AOL's response?

AOL's marketing campaigns have employed classic images "in a tasteful manner" for years, says an AOL spokesman in an email. "We simply felt that a gentle reference to technology as a part of Hopper's 'Nighthawks' masterpiece was a timely and interesting nuance people would appreciate and find interesting," he wrote. "Besides, who doesn't check their email over a cup of coffee?"

"Gentle reference?" What does that mean? "Timely and interesting nuance"?Timely in reference to what? "Nuance"? Is that what you call a major alteration to a work of art -- along the lines of, say, my rewriting the Harry Potter books to include, oh, I don't know, inappropriate intimate relationships between the teachers and students at Hogwarts? And that thing about checking email over coffee -- is that supposed to be funny?

Yeah, we know, we know. It was just harmless fun. They were just fooling around. We should lighten up.

2. A Tenth of a Penny for Your Thoughts

Vivendi Universal's

(V) - Get Report

misadventures in the U.S.-based entertainment business took yet another odd turn this week, even as the company announced its sensible agreement to merge much of the business with

General Electric's

(GE) - Get Report

NBC.

The latest head-scratcher came as Vivendi Universal Chairman Jean-Rene Fourtou explained on a conference call with analysts why the company had decided not to sell its Universal Music record label just yet.

Cinquante Cent?

Stars in music are "becoming the brand, you know, of a new culture," Fourtou said, according to the research lab's transcription of his comments. "You have seen the successful movie we made with Eminem, but with 5 cents, and things like that, we have a lot of ideas, you know, based on the fact that we are the symbols of a new culture, which is urban music..."

It's possible that when Fourtou made his reference to "5 cents" he actually meant to say "50 Cent" -- the rapper who makes an appearance on the Universal soundtrack album for the Universal movie

8 Mile

, starring Eminem.

If that's the case, forgive us for making fun of someone who speaks English infinitely better than we speak French.

On the other hand, it occurs to us that perhaps Fourtou was making some sort of sly comment about the continuing strength of the euro. We understand that the effects of a weak dollar policy are complex and mysterious, but we had no idea how far-reaching they were.

3. Secure the Perimeter

This isn't the first time that Jean-Rene Fourtou has confused us. In fact, he's been doing it for months. So this week, we at the research lab tried to clear the matter up.

We failed.

At issue is "perimeter," a word that isn't used often in the U.S. business press but always seems to pop up when someone from Vivendi Universal starts talking about financial results and other company news.

"Due to substantial

perimeter

reductions, the straightforward comparisons of 2003 vs. 2002 results, on an actual basis, may not be meaningful," read VU's Sept. 24 financial results news release. "That is why the comparisons below are presented with an illustrative

perimeter

identical to existing fully consolidated subsidiaries."

"All potential acquirers or partners for Vivendi Universal Entertainment have made a first proposal with various

perimeters

, valuations and other conditions, as expected," the company said in July.

"We expect that 2002 will be a year of growth, without further change in

perimeter

," since-ousted Chairman Jean-Marie Messier said in a late-2001 press release announcing the deal to create Vivendi Universal Entertainment.

Upon further research, we discovered that other European companies use the p-word, too. "Changes in the Group's consolidation perimeter were an important reason for this increase in EBITDA," an executive at

Electricidade de Portugal

told analysts last month, according to CCBN and FDCH e-Media.

So what's a perimeter anyway? We called the

International Accounting Standards Board to find out. Unfortunately, two different folks affiliated with the standards-setting group -- with a total of 45 years of international accounting between them -- said they had no clue. They'd never heard of it.

Then we called Peter Thal Larsen, U.S. media editor for the

Financial Times

. He'd never encountered "perimeter" either.

As far as we can figure out on our own, "perimeter" means something like "ongoing business." A change in perimeter means merger and acquisition activity -- buying or selling a business. VU's "illustrative perimeter" in our first example sounds like "pro forma results" (using the pre-Internet definition of "pro forma," yet another confusing financial term).

Of course, the sensible thing to do here would be to have someone from VU explain exactly what perimeter means. Unfortunately, the research lab's multiple emails and phone calls to VU's chief spokesman over the past two weeks have gone unanswered. If we ever manage to penetrate his perimeter, we'll let you know.

4. Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Hipster chain

Urban Outfitters

(URBN) - Get Report

became the retail industry's infuriation magnet this week, thanks to a board game the company has been hawking:

Ghettopoly.


Depending on your sense of humor, Ghettopoly is either a tasteless, racist version, or a postmodern parody, of the board game Monopoly. In this particular edition, you don't land on Boardwalk or Park Place; you end up at Weinstein's Gold and Platinum or Smitty's XXX Peep Show, according to the

Associated Press

. Instead of Chance and Community Chest cards, you have Hustle and Ghetto Stash, with news such as "You got yo whole neighborhood addicted to crack. Collect $50 from each playa."

This week, at least one protest of the game was held outside of the Philadelphia headquarters of Urban Outfitters.

Which leads us at the research lab to ask, "How dare you, Urban Outfitters? How dare you steal the patented let's-offend-people-to-get-cheap-publicity strategy of

Abercrombie & Fitch

(ANF) - Get Report

?"

A&F, you'll recall,

is in the business of predictable outrage, sparking it with products ranging from thong underwear for preteen girls to T-shirts incorporating a fictional, stereotypical Chinese laundry.

By the way, Ghettopoly's creator, David Chang, says on his Web site that he came to America from Taiwan at age 8. His dad, he says, "opened a 'stereotypical' Chinese restaurant." We've got a "stereotypical" response: Ghettopoly is still "childish."

5. Drop and Give Me a Twenty

We were outraged this week to see that the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing was advertising the new, multicolored $20 bill on the

CBS MarketWatch Web site.

Now, could this outrage have something to do with the fact that the ad was on their site, and not the research lab's?

Possibly.

But it was something else, too. Why, we thought, do you have to advertise a $20 bill anyway? You give it to people, and they'll spend it. The whole advertising strategy struck us as Dumb as a public service announcement reminding people to breathe air.

Just to confirm our suspicions, we called up the folks at the B of E&P, who argued us out of them.

Apparently, the last time the bureau introduced a radically new note -- you know, the "big head" bills that the new ones are replacing -- the government did it without benefit of advertising. And it showed. A spokeswoman says that when people first got them from automated teller machines, many people doubted they were real U.S. dollars. Cashiers in stores refused to accept them. "We didn't reach the masses like we needed to," says the spokeswoman. "We learned some lessons from the last time."

Working for That Twenty

This time around, the Bureau has a $53 million budget over five years to smooth the way for new $20s, $50s and $100s -- money that will be spent on advertising, press relations and training materials for businesses that handle cash. The advertising budget for the new $20 note, she says, amounts to $16.8 million.

The spokeswoman also tells us that the bureau issues between 2 billion and 2.5 billion $20 dollar notes annually. So, given that we have nothing else to do, we decided to figure out how much the government is spending on each $20 bill over the next five years to advertise the use of that $20. The number we come up with is 15/100 of a cent.

Such a bargain.

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