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Filthy Lucre Inc.

Posted 6/13/2001

The Nose recently came across a square brochure, roughly the size of a 45 jacket, offering the ominous warning, "You Got No Future But the One You Save." The message is scrawled in the erratic, blood-on-the-Tate Mansion-wall font known as HelterSkelter. Sadly, the Nose was not surprised to see the advertisement invoke the Sex Pistols, whose chant of "no future!" famously climaxed their song "God Save the Queen." Punk has become a ubiquitous part of the ad industry's toolbox--especially lately, with a Minutemen song selling Volvos and the Buzzcocks' music popping up in a Toyota commercial. But this one's a tad different.

The purveyor of the shock treatment? Local mutual-funds giant T. Rowe Price, in the news lately for layoffs and poor first-quarter returns. Now that the overinflated '90s bubble has burst, the securities industry needs a new image to reach the twenty- and thirtysomethings and what's left of their dot-com wealth. So, with cynicism that sinks lower than the Nasdaq, T. Rowe is turning to punk imagery to flog 401(k)s.

Punks living in the tradition of Sid and Nancy might have thought in terms of nickel and dime bags when considering good investments, a sentiment the starched shirts at T. Rowe hardly seem likely to endorse. What the company is out to endorse is a central tenet of the New Economy--that investing is rebellious, and that the losers are merely those who didn't invest, well, rebelliously. The pamphlet presents an example of two different savings strategies, complete with bar graphs and photos of two hypothetical employees. The less-aggressive investor, left with less money at retirement, clutches a skateboard, sticks out his tongue, and mugs at the camera. This angry loser's name? Sid. (Lest anyone should miss the connection to Sid Vicious, there's that "No Future" slogan again, screaming across the top of the page.) The other guy, the one who invests more of his earnings with T. Rowe, is the very image of the attitudinous Real Rebel.

And with what outfit is this daring soul casting his lot? Near a mock "parental advisory" sticker on the brochure's cover is the name of the company for which this 401(k) plan was designed: EMI.

The Nose doubts the Pistols theme is an accident here. It was EMI that first signed the band in October 1976, released the "Anarchy in the U.K." single, and then--appalled by the Pistols' public behavior--dropped them after just three months. Johnny Rotten and company collected an advance of £20,000 for their brief work, and manager Malcolm McLaren milked the label for an additional £30,000 in a notorious settlement. Less than a year later, the band memorialized its own wise investing in the song "EMI," released on the competing Virgin label. Rather than trying to cop the Sex Pistols' image, the Nose reckons, T. Rowe Price might be better served by proving it can match the seminal punks' business prowess.

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