Have you seen the new commercials that look and feel like cable news programming?

I’ve seen at least three different variations for three different advertisers. The one I see the most is the most innocuous:  it’s for the “Mucho Money” show, a Jim Cramer “Mad Money” rip-off selling Optimum Online and related services. I say innocuous because nobody with half a brain could mistake it for a real news show. Not with the stock ticker at the bottom of the ad tracking the price of Mango Chutney and Waffle Irons.

But then there’s the “Breaking News from the TMU FHA Hotline” commercial that I think  sets dangerous precedents and needs to be taken off the air.

At the start of the commercial, the screen shouts “TMU” in huge type, then “Breaking News” in slightly smaller type. This is on for a a while, and then, in tiny print at the bottom of the screen for all of maybe 2 seconds, it says “The following is a Paid Advertisement brought to you by Topdot Mortgage.”

The rest of the commercial plays out just like a breaking news story on a cable news station. The ticker at the bottom of the screen says “Breaking News – Federal Government raises FHA Loan Limits…” and continues with newsspeak about loan rates, limits, etc.

The commercial ends with the “newscaster” saying “We’ll have more on this story and other developments on the next edition of the TopDot Mortgage Update.” This is followed by a screen that features TMU and a phone number and half a screen of incredibly fine print that’s up for all of maybe 5 seconds.

This isn’t the worst of these I’ve seen. The worst was one I saw on CNN one day while I was working out on the exercise bike in my gym. It started with the words “Special Report” and looked in every way like a cable news show and had absolutely no mention of an advertisement whatsoever. Unlike the comedic “Mucho Money” it was a serious attempt to come across as real news.

Having forgotten to stuff a fountain pen in my shorts, I couldn’t write down the name,  and I’ve been unable to find it since. (I think it said Investor Link Special Report, but I’m just not sure. If you’ve seen it, please let me know.)

I don’t do TV, so I don’t know whether these DRTV (Direct Response TV) ads are actionable or not. But I do create direct marketing print advertisements, so I have a standard to compare them to.

When we create print ads that take on an editorial look and feel, we add a slug to the ad that says “Advertisement” or “Advertorial” or “Paid Advertisement.” Even if we didn’t want to, the publications demand it or they won’t accept our ads. Some publications won’t accept an ad like that even if it does say advertisement clearly, just to avoid any potential confusion on the part of their readers.

But where was CNN when the “Special Report” ad ran? Don’t they bear some responsibility for airing a misleading ad that attempted to fool their viewers into thinking it was a CNN Special Report? Did USA think that the cursory notifications on the TMU “Breaking News” ad was enough to avoid confusion or worse in the minds of their viewers?

And more importantly, what was going on in the minds of the ad agencies that created these ads? Are they proud of their work? Did they beg their clients to clearly identify that these were ads, but failed to convince them?

Or did they tell their client, “Don’t worry, we’ll run it until we get caught, if we even get caught, then pay the minor fine and laugh all the way to the bank?”

We’re pretty safe in assuming that their clients don’t have a problem with taking advantage of gullible or vulnerable consumers. The greed and lack of moral responsibility exhibited by mortgage lenders and financial institutions is a big part of the reason the entire world economy is tanking right now. As one of the victims of the mortgage meltdown said on CNBC’s “House of Cards” said, “I may be stupid, but they’re guilty.”

But I really do want to know what the creatives were thinking. Can someone from the agency that created these ads please explain to me what you were hoping to achieve by running these misleading ads, and more importantly, how you sleep at night?

Comments
  1. dwb says:

    jeff
    well said. I have not seen these spots but what you are describing is to me the tip of the iceberg. My rant is about product placement, the ubiquitous and growing embeds of messages into media under the guise of editorial. In short order, we will not be able to discern the difference between an ad and edit, between program content and a commercial message. Followed to its logical conclusion this trend leads to the breakdown of any credible media source. Not only will advertising suffer, but this will eventually cause the deterioration of our culture and lifestyle.

    • jlsimons says:

      Great point, David. Product placement in shows like American Idol is fine, because it’s blatant, obvious and expected. Product placement on The Colbert Report is satirical. But surreptitious, insidious product placement is a trend that, as it becomes ubiquitous, will eventually destroy itself as an effective marketing tool. I won’t go so far as to judge the effect of it on our culture and lifestyle, however, since I’m a South Park fan who listens to Eminem and is therefore clearly too far gone already.

  2. Faithful Reader says:

    Great catch, Jeff. I’ve seen this ad several times and truly resent it’s use of the “special report/breaking news” format. Viewers who miss the attribution could be seriously misled, as you’ve pointed out. Another case of “nobody minding the store”?

    F.R.

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks, FR. I have a friend who’s on the DMA council that looks at misleading ads, and he recently told me that the number of complaints and violations are skyrocketing with the lousy economy. They’re trying to “mind the store” but I think they’re getting overwhelmed, and beyond that, their actual ability to penalize is limited.

  3. James says:

    Jeff,

    as soon as i saw this pop up i thought your post…

    http://the-newyork-tribune.com/finance/google-now-hiring.html

    what is the world coming to?

    ~james

    • jlsimons says:

      Nice find, James. It also points out one of the problems with Affiliates. This is being run by a Google affiliate, but it makes Google look bad. Affiliates can bring in good business, but if you don’t police them carefully, they can get you into trouble.

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