The Law & Order Index

Watching reruns could make you rich!

Sam's the man
Sam’s the man

As we all now know, Law & Order isn’t just a TV show anymore, it’s a brand—there’s the original series, its three spinoffs, a pair of computer games, and a new coffee-table book you can browse between reruns on TNT. One convincing sign of the show’s reach, however, often goes overlooked. Like only a few brands before it, Law & Order has become an economic indicator. McDonald’s, for example, can boast about the Economist’s Big Mac Index, which uses the price of that signature burger to determine whether a country’s currency is over- or undervalued. Now, thanks to TD Waterhouse, you can use your knowledge of Law & Order to decide whether it’s time to put some money in the market.

Last month, TD Waterhouse, one of the biggest discount brokerage firms, announced that it was replacing its spokesman. Sam Waterston, who plays prosecutor Jack McCoy on Law & Order, would be taking over for Steven Hill, who used to play District Attorney Adam Schiff. Hill’s ad campaign, which appeared on television and in print, followed print ads that featured Jerry Orbach, who for the past 12 seasons has played the show’s wise-cracking Detective Lennie Briscoe. The basic idea behind all three campaigns was to present potential investors with a familiar and trustworthy spokesperson. Traditionally, the problem with this kind of static approach is that investors trust different people in different economic conditions—the boom time’s role model won’t cut it during a recession. But that’s the beauty of an ensemble cast. There’s a Law & Order character for every economic climate.

How did it all begin? TD Waterhouse has insisted that the company “was not intending to go with a Law and Order theme,” but as any devoted fan of Law & Order knows, intent can be hard to prove—and sometimes you can make a case without it. In 1999, TD Waterhouse, fresh off an IPO of close to $1 billion, launched its biggest ad campaign ever, a $100 million TV and print blitz. The ads in the so-called “Xprs Yrslf” series played on the two meanings of “express”—TD Waterhouse’s services would help you make a statement about yourself through your investments and would do so in a jiffy, since we all have times when we’re just too busy for vowels. Along with Jackie Chan (depicted fighting off bad guys while reading a TD Waterhouse research report) and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, there was Jerry Orbach, expressing himself in a print ad that listed a few of his favorite stocks.

In that giddy time, Orbach was an obvious choice. Though there were perhaps still a few people out there for whom Orbach would always be “the dad from Dirty Dancing,” for the rest of us Orbach was Lennie Briscoe, which made him a natural pitch man for a roll-the-dice investment era. Briscoe is known for calling a spade a spade and for calling sex the horizontal hula. He’s honest, but he’s not a scold. He’s not your typical investor—even the casual Law & Order viewer knows that Lennie’s investment experience is limited to placing bets at the OTB—but that was the point. To succeed in the New Economy, the ad suggested, you didn’t need a subscription to the Wall Street Journal or a white collar, just a nose for a good horse.

When the IPO bubble burst however, Lennie Briscoe no longer seemed like the kind of guy whose portfolio you just had to get a peek at. TD Waterhouse figured that it had to reassure tentative investors with a spokesman who offered more gravitas. Someone like Adam Schiff, the curmudgeonly D.A. played by Steven Hill. The ads featuring Hill, who had just left Law & Order, began appearing in January 2002. (See a print ad here.) Often shown with a dark suit, conservative tie, and a trench coat, Hill seemed to have taken Schiff’s wardrobe with him as part of his severance package. He embodied world-weary wisdom. He talked like the cranky voice of reason, too. “You want a fortune teller?” he asked, sitting in front of a computer displaying the company’s site. “Go to the circus. You want information you can trust? TD Waterhouse.” The tone was pitch perfect for an anxious time—frank talk and sage advice.

But apparently there’s only so much frank talk the nervous investor can take. Hill was perhaps too honest; he made you want to put your savings under your mattress. As a reader of the Columbus Dispatch put it in a letter the paper published not long after the Hill campaign was launched, “After listening to him drone on about how desperate my financial future may be, I don’t know whether to cut my wrists or reach for a Xanax the size of a handball.”

Hill seemed even more out of tune as the economy started its tentative upswing. So now TD Waterhouse brings us print and TV ads starring Waterston. (See the TV spot here.) The campaign attacks by name the company’s competitors—Merrill Lynch and Charles Schwab—an aggressive tactic you can imagine the feisty Jack McCoy savoring. McCoy is somewhere between Briscoe and Schiff: He wears a Barbour jacket, but he rides a motorcycle; he’s a workaholic, but he’s been known to get it on with his absurdly attractive assistant district attorneys. He’s a cautious optimist: He’ll offer up a slap-on-the-wrist plea bargain if he has to, but he’d usually rather risk prosecuting defendants at trial, confident he can persuade a jury to issue a tough sentence instead of a not-guilty verdict.

Cautious optimism seemed like a good fit for November’s tentatively hopeful economic moment, but in early December the Dow rose above 10,000 for the first time in 18 months, and that cautious optimism is beginning to seem prescient. Until now, the Law & Order/TD Waterhouse nexus has been what economists call a coincident indicator, a reflection of the current state of the economy. Is it possible that it’s becoming a leading indicator—one that predicts coming economic trends?

If so, we’ll know a sustained boom is on the horizon when TD Waterhouse replaces Waterston with S. Epatha Merkerson. Inside the 27th Precinct, Merkerson’s Lt. Anita Van Buren keeps an even keel despite constantly getting guff from her recalcitrant detectives. After hours, she’s a solidly middle-class mother of two who puts her family’s needs first. This is not a woman who has money to burn and not someone who would invest unless it was a sure thing. Not convinced? Just wait for the next rerun of “Competence,” an episode from Season 5. That’s the one where Van Buren nearly loses her badge for capping a kid she thinks is sticking her up at an ATM. How’s that for protecting your investments?