FreeCreditReport.com

Tell me you have not wanted to poke your eyes out every time you saw or heard the inescapable commercial or jingle from FreeCreditReport.com. You know which one. The one where this curly-haired slacker and his band, dressed as pirates, have taken to working at a poor man’s Red Lobster (if there is such a thing) seafood joint, “serving chowder and iced tea” to “tourists” in what is clearly a low-paying, dead-end job. Or the one where the same dude is bopping his head as he sings again –same melody, slightly different lyrics—this time in a beat-up old Geo Metro, pulling up the stoplight while a carful of babes in a new convertible next to him are laughing at him –and his financial stage in life.

You have just been watching an ad and that viral tune that’s etched in your brain is intended to make you believe a few things. First, it’s clearly directed at young people in order to scare them that if they don’t manage their credit, this kind of social calamity can befall them too. “We’ve always been a very aggressive marketer”, according to Mike Dean, the chief marketing officer for the Experian consumer credit division, which is responsible for the entity that is FreeCreditReport.com.

What? Experian? Yeah, that same Experian that is one of the three major national credit agencies that keeps all of our credit reports. That same agency that, based on federal law, is actually supposed to release your credit report for free. This mandate dates back to 2003, in fact, and millions have benefited from this law.

But millions have also been charmed somehow by these stupid ditties. The website FreeCreditReport.com has spent over $70 million on these ads (commercials on TV and radio, infomercials) and other media advertising in 2007 alone, according to the New York Times. And as for going after a youthful crowd in these ads, the producers of the ads are rather clear in their intent. In the words of Steve Sage, associate creative director at the Richmond VA-based Martin Agency, “We’re just trying to do something that’s talked about and seen and gets passed around in pop culture.” Dean adds that:

We knew our creative was good, and we were targeting a younger audience. That’s exactly what we’ve received with that: we have a lot younger demographic coming into our site.

Well, that’s nice to know: an agency representing another agency, and trying to get attention by possibly luring, then frighening teenagers and young adults. They know that they are an impressionable bunch. They know that young people represent a significant portion of the buying public that’s heading to the malls or even considering a car purchase –the very instances where you need to have good credit.

But Experian surely also knows that these same young people might fall for the biggest trick of all. This purported claim of this report being “free” is false. It is, in fact, a service that you sign up for, then you agree to a $14.95 “credit-monitoring service” that you must sign up for. It’s a classic bait-and switch. No money up front, no credit report. (Again, which you could get anyways free and by law by the same firm that owns the site!)

Wait, there’s more. That $14.95 fee? It’s monthly, and if you don’t call to cancel this within 30 days, you will be charged again and again, and possibly into perpetuity. Several investigations from consumer groups report that it isn’t easy to cancel this fee. And in 2005, the Federal Trade Commission sued “ConsumerInfo.com”, an Experian division that ran FreeCreditReport.com back then. The claim was that the site was being deceptive by promising a free report. The site settled out of court, paying out a $950,000 settlement, plus provided refunds to bilked consumers.

Apparently Experian, in its mission to create cute ditties and become an entrenched part of pop culture, feels as if it may be doing some kind of service to our young people. After all, they are seen as materialist, apathetic, almost-exclusively male and solely interested (according to Experian’s sociological view) a hot set of wheels for the ladies. In one sense, they have succeeded. On YouTube you can see over 70 parodies or versions of these commercials, so at the very least they are getting those songs stuck in their heads.

And, yes, the bottom line matters, of course, and FreeCreditReport.com has seen member sign-ups rise upwards of 20 percent in 2007. They have ushered in a group of people by snookering them into something that is unbeknownst to them –well, at least for those who don’t read the fine print. Need a new car financed? Want to buy some furniture? Can’t wait for Equifax or Experian to send you that free copy? Need this fast? What is $14.95 anyways? And after all this, those same youth that sign up are the same ones who will be complaining as the over-indebted adults in years to come. The greed cycle continues. Experian tosses the bait, brings them in. It then delivers them to all those creditors eager for their money and their soon-to-be high interest rates.

In the meantime, stay tuned for the next miserable “bad credit” moment. The new ad, out next week, features the same dudes in the band performing in emasculating tights at a Renaissance festival. Losers indeed.

[Via The New York Times]

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