TV rarely tackles a topic that pays its bills: Misleading credit card ads

Pay now, pay later: Credit card companies may have been reined in somewhat by recent legislation, but the lures they dangle are everywhere apparent.
Pay now, pay later: Credit card companies may have been reined in somewhat by recent legislation, but the lures they dangle are everywhere apparent. (Marlena Telvick)
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It floors me that credit card companies are still running costly, lavishly produced commercials on network television and cable channels even as America continues to struggle its way out of a crippling recession brought on at least partly by the country's mad spending bender, a reckless epidemic of consumer credit run amok.

What to do? Spend more, the credit card ads imply; dig yourself even deeper into debt and don't worry about it. After all, everybody does it.

"It's time to wind up the masquerade," warns an old show tune. "Just make your mind up/the piper must be paid." That was "The Party's Over," and it was about the end of a love affair, but so in a way is this; we've got to break up with a longtime lover who's been draining us dry.

Like sugar and, oh, let's say the most tabloidy and gossipy reality television programs, credit is, for millions, genuinely addictive. In a solid and sobering 2006 documentary called "Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders," filmmaker James D. Scurlock compared credit to a habit-forming drug, even in the way it's sneakily disseminated throughout the population. Kids in college often find solicitations in their mail inviting them to receive a free credit card and, perhaps, to pay a teasingly low interest rate for the first months or year in which they use the card. By the time they're thinking about home and family, they're totally hooked.

In November, PBS's "Frontline" offered "The Card Game," a kind of unofficial follow-up to Scurlock's film and a hard-hitting cry of alarm. One of the tycoons who helped popularize Everybody Credit and came up with the notion of seducing consumers by making it cheap or, at first, even free (then raising the rates once the consumer had built up a substantial balance), defended it in the documentary as a clever and productive business practice.

Shailesh Mehta, former CEO of the notorious Providian Bank, smiled with satisfaction, and no trace of guilt, as he talked about Providian's inspired marketing: target low-income families (dubbed "the unbanked") who could least afford luxuries and dangle delicious possibilities in front of them.

Of course once they were mired in debt, Providian lowered the boom with higher interest and a panoply of special charges. Some of those were outlawed by the limited credit and mortgage reform that passed Congress earlier this year, but experts in the field pointed out that banks will have little trouble squeezing through loopholes or devising new unsavory practices just as profitable as the ones now forbidden.

Reform came after years of frustration for consumer groups trying to curb the credit bender -- and no wonder. Scurlock reported in "Maxed Out" that the largest single donor to congressional campaigns was MBNA, a gargantuan lender (since merged into even larger banks) with the most to lose if reform were ever put into law.

If debt and credit worries give you insomnia, meanwhile, and you find yourself in the bizarre bazaar of all-night programming -- and all those hard-sell all-night commercials -- you may have noticed that ads for even riskier and costlier consumer credit are proliferating. You, too, can get fast relief via quickie loans of $1,500 or more -- at astronomical interest rates. Or why not raid dear little granny's jewelry box for old gold pieces she might not notice are missing? Plop them into a little envelope, send them in, and get new cash for old gold.

Television's escapist programming naturally continues to endorse living beyond one's means as the time-tested American Way and rarely depicts families or individuals wracked by the pressures and miseries that come with excess. The tremendous and expanding gap between the very rich and the poor is ignored, while lavish lifestyles are portrayed -- as always in escapist pop lit -- as desirably glamorous, spiritually fulfilling and a happy capitalist's just deserts.

And here come those funny, funny Vikings (or whatever they're supposed to be) asking "What's in your wallet?" (a smutty reference to the prophylactics that some guys tote around in their billfolds?) and urging you to spend like there's no tomorrow, even though tomorrow is here -- it's been here for months -- and has put the kibosh on many a sybaritic field day.

During World War II, Eddie Cantor promoted fiscal responsibility in one of his song hits. Since unnecessary spending breeds inflation, he trilled, "we're staying home tonight, my baby and me, having a patriotic time." It seems unlikely we'll see such a campaign today.

The perils of credit and debt, especially perilous in the computer age, have long been acknowledged in pop culture, but very infrequently by TV. A daring exception to the rule was an episode of ABC's ambitious but low-rated legal drama "Judd for the Defense," which aired from 1967-69. In an episode called "Epitaph on a Computer Card," William Daniels brilliantly portrayed a heavily indebted businessman whose unsuccessful attempts to correct a computer mistake on a credit-card bill eventually drive him mad, or at least to what used to be called a "nervous breakdown."

In the intervening 30-plus years, network TV has very rarely approached the subject, sadly understandable when one considers who pays the bills and buys the advertising on all those shows -- all those shows that tell us everything is just peachy and there's little need to worry, and why wait until tomorrow for what you deserve today?

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