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TD Ameritrade Visits Big Rock Candy Mountain

Welcome to One Man Focus Group, where obsessive critic Paul Lukas evaluates tomorrow's cultural detritus today. 

The most celebrated and analyzed commercials of the winter season are the ones shown during the Super Bowl. But sometimes the more interesting ads are the ones that fly under the high-profile radar.

Case in point: The online broker TD Ameritrade has been running a fascinating TV spot this winter. In case you haven't already seen it, you can take a look here:

As you can see, the ad is filled with imagery drawn from children's stories and nursery rhymes, from the red-suited bicyclist (Little Red Riding Hood, get it?) to the scary troll under the bridge. Suggesting that the vagaries of the stock market can somehow be reduced to the level of Mother Goose is a pretty neat trick (or, if you prefer, a pretty insidious one), but the commercial's most interesting element is easy to miss. Listen to the tune being strummed and whistled in the background. Do you recognize it?

That tune is "Big Rock Candy Mountain." First recorded by Harry McClintock in 1928 and subsequently embraced by countless folk, country, rock, and children's recording artists, it's the whimsical story of a magical land of paradise, as enthusiastically described by a hobo. Or to put it another way, it's a poor man's fever dream of a very rich place—which is a pretty clever way to appeal to recession-battered investors. (You can see a fairly typical rendition of the song here.)

In fact, the more you look at the song's lyrics, the more apparent it becomes that the Big Rock Candy Mountain isn't just a paradise—it's an investor's paradise. There are references to nest eggs ("the hens lay soft-boiled eggs"), commodities ("the farmers' trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay"), dividends ("the handouts grow on bushes"), and liquid assets ("little streams of alcohol come tricking down the rocks").

Market volatility? Fuhgeddaboudit. This is a place "where there ain't no snow, where the rain don't fall, [and] the winds don't blow." Ah, but what about those nasty regulators? Not to worry. In the Big Rock Candy Mountain, you see, "the cops have wooden legs," "the bulldogs all have rubber teeth," and "the railway bulls are blind," which sounds like a pretty apt description of today's SEC. And should you somehow land in the clink for securities fraud anyway, no problem there either:

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
The jails are made of tin
And you can walk right out again
As soon as you are in

The best part comes at the end of the song, where we learn that the Big Rock Candy Mountain is "where they hung the jerk that invented work." Sure, why have a job when the magic of the market can supply your income? All in all, it's a remarkably prescient manifesto of the modern Wall Street mindset—all packaged as a seductively hummable fairy tail.

And what is Little Red Riding Hood to make of all this? One can almost hear her innocently saying, "My, what big front end loads you have!" The better to charge you exorbitant commissions, my dear.

Do you know of a new product, service, design, or phenomenon that deserves a closer look? Send tips, samples, press releases, and best intentions here.