What real financial advisers think of 'Ozark'

Netflix miniseries just the latest example of Hollywood dwelling on the worst stereotypes of the financial services industry

By Jeff Benjamin

Aug 4, 2017 @ 11:47 am EST

Actor Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde in
Actor Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde in "Ozark."

Financial advisers who have become frustrated with negative portrayals of the profession from the entertainment industry will not be happy with the Netflix series "Ozark."

The 10-episode series, released July 21, features fictional character Marty Byrde, played by actor Jason Bateman, sliding down a slippery slope from financial planning number-cruncher to money-laundering expert and felon.

While the lead character doesn't dedicate much time doing anything that could be considered basic financial planning work, he does leverage the title at times as a means of soliciting investor assets.

For some financial advisers, "Ozark" is just the latest example of Hollywood presenting, and perhaps creating, negative stereotypes of Wall Street in general, and financial planning in particular.

"It probably sells better to have a financial adviser portrayed as a money launderer," said Shannon Pike, president of the Financial Planning Association.

While advisers might rightly grumble about being portrayed as outlaws by the entertainment industry, Mr. Pike admits it does represent a certain amount of progress that Hollywood has moved beyond the stock broker cliché.

"Maybe there is something to them using the term adviser more often now, instead of those 1980s and 90s terms of stock broker," he added, suggesting the financial planning moniker is becoming more mainstream, even if not for the most upstanding reasons.

Breanna Reish, a financial planner at TriCord Advisors, shrugs it off as the cost of becoming a mainstream profession.

"The show wouldn't be exciting if they showed us saving the world," she said.

Although Ms. Reish admits the negative portrayals and loose examples of financial planning do get under her skin at times.

While watching the HBO series "Ballers," which includes financial advisers working with professional athletes in various illegal and compromising situations, Ms. Reish said she will literally yell at the television set.

"I'm telling my husband, 'What they did right there, that's illegal,' and my husband is asking if we can just watch the show," she said. "I've been at cookouts and had friends ask me if that's what the financial planning profession is really like. I'm not even cool enough for that kind of stuff, which is why I can't imagine anyone would think I could do some of that stuff."

Rose Swanger, president of Advise Finance, also likes to correct Hollywood script writers from the comfort of her home.

"I tell my husband, 'That is not real,'" she said. "It's a stereotype, and I think it's bad for the reputation of all of us who are doing good things for the public."

Ms. Swanger added that she enjoys the dialogue and the general plot of Ozark, but is not happy with the message.

"The general public is already really misinformed about what financial planning is," she said. "And this show is particularly frustrating because Marty is presented as a general financial adviser. I feel very unjustified."

Back in 2005, Sarah Teslik, then-chief executive of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, envisioned a fictional TV series that centered on financial planning.

The idea, which Ms. Teslik described as "edutainment," and was modeled after the popular situation-comedy Friends, never materialized.

And since Ms. Teslik's tenure as the head of the CFP Board only lasted three years, ending in early 2007, the idea apparently never moved past the drawing board.

Ms. Teslik could not be reached for comment, but it is probably safe to say the financial planning characters depicted in shows like "Ballers" and "Ozark" were not what she had in mind.

"Showing the good side of financial planning is not going to sell a Netflix miniseries, but wouldn't it be great to have that kind of positive message presented in some kind of drama or sitcom?" said Mr. Pike. "It certainly would be great if there was some show that portrayed the real part of financial planning. Seeing the bad examples, that's not what we do."

Brian Ulsperger, managing director in the wealth advisory services group at Anderson Tax, also believes "Ozark" plays off negative stereotypes.

But he acknowledges that stereotypes don't emerge out of thin air.

"It is obviously over dramatized, but you can see the slippery slope and how you can get wrapped up in lies and can't get out of it," he said. "Just think about people in our business who get involved with any kind of impropriety. I'm certain Bernie Madoff didn't expect his Ponzi scheme would get to where it got when he started it."

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