Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Let’s reconsider the year 1999: President Clinton was with Buddy in the doghouse, movie viewers were puzzling over The Matrix, the Y2K-phobic were building generators and stocking up on tuna fish. Oh yeah, and we were getting filthy rich on dot-com stocks.

The filthy-rich part is the only reality offered in these brilliantly satiric spots for E*Trade. Indeed, what better way for a financial-services firm to acknowledge the sober, morning-after nature of our present economy—setting up the “Times have changed. So have we” line—than by contrasting it with the irrational exuberance of that premillennial year?

Of course, online trading services like E*Trade fueled a lot of the excess. The irony is not lost on San Francisco-based Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, which was building the E*Trade brand all through that crazed go-go year. These spots, poking fun at the insane prosperity of that time, could also be seen as some sort of comic mea culpa: They acknowl edge that investors took it on the chin, but give us credit (perhaps prematurely) for being so much the wiser now.

Each spot starts with “1999” written in old-fashioned italic type on a title card, like the opening of a silent movie. So let’s go back to that time, when getting hired as a “software consultant” was a matter of showing up for the free food at a trade fair. The casting and acting are particularly inspired in “Interviews,” showing an array of previously unemployed and/or washed-up oddballs—like the bearded, long-haired, crazed-looking guy eating a banana whose résumé states that he last worked in 1982—getting the full “Welcome aboard!” from a recruiter.

It was also a time when the accepted wisdom was to get a job, any job, at a startup, for the stock options. So what if you’re cleaning toilets—you’ll be a millionaire in no time. To this end, in “Secretary” we watch a cheerful, plus-sized assistant making her rounds—on her knees fixing a paper jam, taking the boss’ shirts in for “heavy starch” and, yes, restocking the toilet paper in the bathroom.

At the corporate garage, the attendant tells her the company’s stock is “still up” as she gets into her car—a bright yellow, hand-made Saleen, worth about $450,000.

All the spots are great, but the funniest is “Pitch.” A bunch of seasoned venture capitalists meet around a conference table with two young tech dweebs. The Valley guys are perfectly cast: The blond kid has the official Gen-Xer black glasses; the other genius is silently tech-savvy. These new-economy kids have the simultaneous blankness and arrogance that can only come with being 23. And the VCs treat them with the reverence usually reserved for visiting heads of state.

“Is it a chip?” the VCs ask in an increasingly frustrating, Rumpelstiltskin-like process. The guy in the glasses counters, “I’d hesitate to call it a chip.” The lone woman in the group has the temerity to ask if it’s software. “Software is such a weird word,” the baby mogul responds, as if their idea is so paradigm-changing that to reduce it to any existing language would be a terrible trivialization. The inventor concedes, “It helps to fuel the Internet,” and that a Web site is “under construction.”

“You’re on the World Wide Web!” one of the VCs crows. “I think we’d be idiots not to fund this!”

It was a time when money, to use a phrase from that award-winning E*Trade ad of 2000, was “coming out the wazoo.” E*Trade itself has survived that mania and continues to diversify—unlike, say, Discover brokerage, which had the clever ad with the tow-truck driver who owned an island. These commercials are as smart as can be, and also charming and insightful. But we’ll have to check back in three years to see if they’re just adding insight to injury.