Joe Dellosa

Writing

Web site scams students unaware of free credit report law


Notes & Context

FreeCreditReport.com is now known as FreeCreditScore.com. It's still the same people, though, and it's still the same dishonest advertising.

When this piece was published in the Alligator, it was edited for length. Below is the full, unedited version.


FreeCreditReport.com, the credit-reporting service owned by Experian, recently released their latest TV commercial in their ubiquitous “guy sings about his bad credit” ad campaign, which raises an important question: How the hell are these ads still on TV?

Don’t get me wrong. The FreeCreditReport.com commercials, from an advertising standpoint, are incredibly well-executed. The lyrics are clever, the songs become instant earworms, and most everybody I know has a favorite spot (mine’s the one with the bicycles). It’s no wonder why Experian poured upwards of $70 million into the Web site’s advertising budget in 2007.

The Martin Agency, FreeCreditReport.com’s ad agency, has undoubtedly created an amazingly effective ad campaign. They’ve also created one of the most unethical, cynical ad campaigns in recent memory.

The context: In 2003, the FACT Act was signed into law, which entitled consumers to a free annual credit report from the three major consumer credit reporting agencies, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. To comply with the law, the three agencies and the FTC established AnnualCreditReport.com.

Unfortunately, AnnualCreditReport.com was woefully underpublicized, resulting in many consumers being vaguely aware of their right to a credit report but not having any real idea of how to go about getting it.

Enter FreeCreditReport.com. With a deluge of TV commercials that sought to position it as the prima facie free credit report Web site, the company successfully preyed upon consumers’ ignorance of the law, as well as exploited consumers’ fears about hackers and identity theft: Because of his damaged credit score, he couldn’t afford a decent car, and instead of looking fly and rolling phat, this guy’s posse is getting laughed at—I don’t want that to happen to me!

Of course, FreeCreditReport.com’s credit reports aren’t actually free. At the end of most of the commercials, an announcer hurriedly says, “Offer applies with enrollment in Triple Advantage,” the Web site’s $14.95/month credit-monitoring service. In essence, it’s like saying, “Free Cinnamon Toast Crunch! Offer applies with purchase of box.”

And consumers did get hoodwinked. The FTC’s Web site specifically warns against “imposter” Web sites, and even released a series of web PSAs that directly parody FreeCreditReport.com’s ads, dorky singing guitarist and all (“Other sites may turn your head / They say they’re free, don’t be misled / Once you’re in their tangled web / They’ll sell you something else instead!”).

It was enough of a problem that the Credit CARD Act of 2009, signed into law in May, requires all TV ads for credit-reporting services not authorized by the FTC to say explicitly, “This is not the free credit report provided for by Federal Law.”

This isn’t to say that consumers duped by FreeCreditReport.com are blameless. This information is readily available with a quick Google search, and consumers shouldn’t be blindly following financial advice from some guy on TV—let alone one dressed up like a pirate, whining in verse.

But it’s rare that a company, through its an advertising campaign, so flagrantly acts in bad faith and treats its consumers with such overt contempt. Even though the ads are lighthearted, they manipulate and amplify very real fears (What if my identity’s stolen? Will I get a job? Will I ever be able to buy a house?). Catchy, rhyming fear-mongering, after all, is still fear-mongering. And building a business predicated on your consumers’ ignorance is simply mean-spirited.

College students should be particularly offended. In a 2008 New York Times article, Mike Dean, a marketing executive at Experian, said that the idea behind the ads is to appeal to a young crowd. “[W]e were targeting a younger audience,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’ve received with that: we have a lot younger demographic coming into our site.” Gee, thanks, Mike.

FreeCreditReport.com’s marketing practices are entirely unscrupulous, and the Martin Agency—an agency whose others ads, like those for GEICO, I love—should be absolutely ashamed of its complicity in it. Both deserve all the scorn we can muster.

But most importantly, these ads need to go away now.

Joe Dellosa is an advertising senior.


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