I want to start this rant by saying I think most people in the direct marketing business are honest people. Most ads in most media adhere to most of the ethical principles of the Direct Marketing Association. And in working with more than 200 clients in a variety of industries, and getting calls from thousands of potential clients, I’ve run into only a handful of cheats.
That said, I’m angered that so many of the direct response TV ads I see are dishonest. I used to be a television commercial producer in a former life and this medium is near and dear to my heart. There are certainly scams in just about every medium, but as a TV and movie fan, I can’t seem to escape the ones I see on the tube.
What sort of scams are we talking about? Here are a few of the most popular:
- Spot reduction myth. You’ve seen this one a hundred times. “Just use the Super Duper Ab Master for 34 seconds a day and turn that flabby tummy into six-pack abs in a week!” Sounds good, but it doesn’t work that way. You can’t target a part of your body for weight loss. When you loose weight, it comes off all over. And those highly-defined six-pack abs come only with strict dieting and hard training.
- Miracle weight loss lie. I have a 1902 edition of the Sears and Roebuck catalog and it’s chock full of phony elixirs. So this scam isn’t exactly new. The promise is rapid weight loss, reinforced with before and after photos of supposedly real people. In the small and unreadable print at the bottom of the television screen, however, you’re told that the pill or potion should be accompanied by healthy eating and exercise. Does it work? Sure … if you eat right and exercise.
- No sweat workout promise. Some of the worst rip-offs are for exercise products, mostly because people want to be in shape but don’t actually want to get off the couch. Many exercise devices are specifically designed to make you feel like you’re working out without actually taxing your muscles, a prerequisite for effective exercise. Notice how many of the devices you see advertised in those TV infomercials allow you to sit, requiring only gentle twisting or light arm or leg movements. That’s fine if you’re 80. But getting a useful workout for an average body is nearly impossible.
- Get rich quick scheme. It could be buying and selling real estate. Or trading stocks. Or selling on the Internet. They all work the same way, promising great wealth with little effort, which should make you dubious right away. If it’s that easy, why tell others about the system? Because the road to riches is actually in selling the system, not in following it. And what about those testimonials from “ordinary” people who claim it works? They’re either friends of the scammer, paid actors, or “special” students who have been given extra attention and assistance so they can succeed and appear in the commercial. The disclaimer at the bottom of the screen: Results not typical.
- Get “bigger with a pill” trick. You have to love this one. It’s not so much a rip-off as a play on words. Sure, you can get bigger with a pill. But it’s all about what you mean by “bigger.” There are legitimate products that help men achieve … I’m searching for my words carefully here … more firmness. And that necessarily means being “bigger.” But it doesn’t mean an increase in maximum size. Follow me? So what men mean by “bigger” isn’t what the seller means by “bigger.” It’s a good, solid, law-suit proof lie.
- Free forever ploy. This one sounds too good to be true and it is. Here’s how it works: You see a commercial for a revolutionary new shaver. Not only is it a great price, they also promise free blade refills forever. The catch? The shipping and handling includes the cost of the blades. You could pay $10, $30, or more for a dollar’s worth of ordinary blades. And you might be enrolled in an automatic shipment plan that dings your credit card every month for shipments you didn’t request. If they’re really aggressive, you could be subject to what’s called a “load up,” getting a year’s worth of razor blades in one shipment with a massive shipping and handing charge dumped onto your credit card.
- Basic bait and switch. That exercise bike looks great on TV. Solid construction. Heavy material. Nice paint. But when you make the call and order, what you get delivered by the friendly UPS guy isn’t quite as nice. In fact, it’s a hunk of junk. Flimsy. Maybe cheap plastic. Ugly paint job. And you can’t always believe what consumer reviews say either, unless the product is ordered anonymously for the review. Sometimes, the manufacturer sends the nice version to the media to encourage enthusiastic reviews. A variation on this is when they send you a used or refurbished product when you’ve paid for a new one. Even some of the more honest sellers do this. My wife ordered a watch from a reputable TV shopping channel recently and the item she received was scratched and worn.
- Refund rip-off. To help sell a product on TV, it helps to provide a money back guarantee. Most people won’t bother to return a product even if they’re not happy with it. That’s fine. But some TV ad scammers won’t risk even a few returns. If you have a 30-day money back guarantee, they might start the countdown when you call to order, not when you receive your order. And of course, they’ll take up to four weeks to ship the product, running out the clock before you have a chance to try the product.
- Customer service hide and seek. This scam involves two phone numbers, one that works and one that, mysteriously, does not. Call the phone number for buying stuff and you’ll always get through. However, the person answering your call will only take orders. If you have a problem or want a refund, you’ll get referred to another number. Call that number and no one answers. Or you get a cheerful voice mail message telling you to leave a message, which never gets a response. The same setup works on the Internet, where you can order just fine, but the customer service e-mail never seems to reach anyone.
- Out and out theft. This one is not at all subtle. You pay for the product, but it never arrives. The company swears they sent it. The ballsy scammers might even suggest you’re trying to rip them off!
This only scratches the surface. There are many, many more scams.
What you need to understand about direct response TV is that it’s a rough business. Only a handful of products will sell via TV commercials. And only about one in 20 tested products succeed. Even if a product is successful, it often has a short lifespan of a few months because of quick market saturation or fast and powerful competition by those who want to ride the coattails of a profitable idea. Worse, the economics of TV products requires a profit margin of about 500%, so that $25 widget can only cost $5 to manufacture.
All of this leads people who might otherwise do honest business to use hardball tactics to turn a profit.
How do companies selling on TV get away with these scams? Simple. They know most products will fail. But when that one magic product comes along, it will earn them millions, often tens of millions of dollars. This is the product that will likely attract attention from regulators. So when the lawsuits hit and the fines come down, they write a check. It’s just part of the operating cost.
Now let me say again. Most direct marketers and many, many TV advertisers are upstanding business people selling good stuff people want. People like Ron Popeil have made massive fortunes selling innovative products with sometimes surprisingly high quality.
But the scams persist. And it makes everyone else in the direct marketing industry look bad. Worse, it often seems like regulators are far more concerned about wardrobe malfunctions or celebrities with a potty mouth than actual lawbreaking.
The one satisfaction I have is that some of the people getting ripped off deserve it. If you think you can look like a model without hard exercise … or make a million dollars in three days sitting at home in your underwear … or get free products for the next 30 years by the good graces of a friendly company … you’re a sucker. You have a lesson coming to you.