When I first started working in New York, I would often walk by the NewsCorp headquarters on 6th Avenue on the way to my office and see a huge banner outside for the Fox Business channel. “The Power to Prosper”, the channel’s slogan, was emblazoned in huge letters on the ad along with the serious, stoic faces of the channel’s flagship personalities.
As time went on I noticed that this “power” theme is pretty ubiquitous in the investment world. Not coincidentally, CNBC, Fox Business’s chief rival, has a show called “Power Lunch” that also features recurring segments called “Power Pitch”, “Power Summit”, and “Power Summit”. For about a month my train was covered in ads for something called S&P Capital IQ, a research and analytics product for investors whose marketing tag lines were similarly power-centric. “The power to globalize your capital”, along with the image of an expressionless woman’s face, hovered over me one afternoon as I sleepily rumbled home from work. Never before has diversifying one’s investment portfolio felt so much like Game of Thrones.
What’s going on here? I would guess some of it would be that providers of market information and intelligence — and I use those terms extremely loosely in the case of CNBC and Fox Business — have figured out that investors want to feel in control. That especially applies to the “retail” investor, typically middle-aged viewers busy with their own jobs but who actively manage their investments on the side, and who imagine that listening to so-called experts on financial TV will help them outperform the stock market. Considering the notoriously fickle and unpredictable nature of financial markets, I don’t blame anyone for gravitating towards the notion of control. Of course, that control is mostly an illusion; the evidence suggests that even hedge funds, armed with immense intellectual firepower, experience, and guts, still have trouble consistently beating the market.
But the other thing this obsession with power in investing might be reflective of is our society’s hyper-competitive, winning-obsessed culture. I feel old bringing up things like this — get off my lawn, by the way — but I just can’t resist.
You see it everywhere, of course, but sneakers and other sports-related products are a good place to start. It used to be that Nike’s “Just do it” marketing campaign stood out for its brash, seize-the-day approach to selling footwear. But when I was a kid, shoe companies also mixed in heaps of levity via supermodel-chasing puppets and cross-dressing power forwards masquerading as dunking grandmas.
When did we all get so serious? These days, sporting equipment marketing is couched in the language of “We must protect this house!” and “Is it in you?“, slogans that resemble personal challenges to one’s manhood more than anything to do with recreation. Mars Blackmon, Nike’s nerdy, glasses-wearing sidekick to Michael Jordan, was once a funny reminder that though we can’t all be Jordan, even the most unathletic among us could have fun pretending. Somewhere along the way, the idea of “If I could be like Mike” slowly transformed from a quaint expression of admiration to a test of one’s mettle and determination to succeed.
It’s not just sneakers, of course, that illustrate our ego-pumped desire to rise above others, an obsession that manifests itself in even more ridiculous ways. After all, one of the most popular energy drinks these days is called “Rockstar“. Meanwhile, Playstation’s current ad campaign beckons us with the promise that “Greatness awaits“. Last time I checked, we were talking about soda and video games.
It’s more than just the ads that have changed, of course. We have changed. With every year, we seem to take another step on the human race’s meandering path from Moses to Machiavelli, from dharma to Darwinism. Should it be any surprise, then, that so many of us seem to treat investing as a gladiatorial competition? Satisfying oneself with steady returns and accepting what the market gives us, it would appear, is for chumps. Real winners rise above the crowd.
So the next time you see the word “power” flash across the screen while watching financial news — probably during an urgent update about Tim Cook’s sexual orientation or a Tesla car on fire somewhere — just stop for a moment and ask the question: Who exactly are the chumps here, and who are the winners? Despite the tantalizing ego rush of treating investing like a Strongest Man competition, the truth is that it’s really more like your company’s race for charity: each individual running at their own pace, yet no one losing sight of what really matters. Investing should be about seeking a good return, managing risk, and planning for the future, even as one comes to peace with the inevitable whims of the marketplace. Those who accept that reality are, quietly, the ones who are actually in control.