After fighting the battles of everyday life, the tired and stressed Maine consumer sits down to unwind at his window to the world, the ubiquitous television. Somewhere in the mix of commercial or cable programming, channel surfing, and the long list of commercial advertising, there comes the infomercial.
These 30-minute ads promise a better life for everyone, and they have the solution to all of our financial, physical, cooking and household woes. With these special and sometimes unique goods or services, as well as the investment of a few dollars, our lives will be markedly improved.
We can be our own boss and become financially independent working just a few hours a week. We can quit our dead-end jobs, lose 50 pounds, cook a great meal with revolutionary new cooking inventions. There is just no end to the easy-as-pie methods to a better life.
Perhaps we should look behind these ads and see what is really happening to those hopeful or desperate consumers who are motivated to respond.
Specialty Merchandise Corporation, or SMC, uses a widely recognized and respected celebrity, Tom Bosley, (the father of the Cunningham family in “Happy Days,” the early 1980s sitcom that also starred Ron Howard and Henry Winkler). Bosley pitches a “business opportunity” in a calm and measured “father knows best” presentation. Pay a small fee of $299 to SMC to become a member, buy specialty products wholesale and resell them to friends and neighbors and, voila, financial independence is in your headlights.
At Northeast CONTACT we are very strong believers in the expression, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” A quick scan of www.infomercialscam.com or www.ripoffreport.com will show the anger and frustration of many SMC members whose financial dreams of success quickly became a series of expensive nightmares.
An unemployed woman truck driver, for example, decided to give SMC a try to make ends meet. She said the suggested retail prices are way too high and a quick look at items listed on eBay show that they are barely selling for what members paid for them. She was also frustrated that she had to purchase SMC catalogs from which to order merchandise.
Another individual said: “I got bilked out of $4,000. I bought an SMC e-commerce Web site and received very little tech support. I canceled the account but had less than the promised 30 days to do so. I do not look for any refund from this company.”
“I ordered the free information kit from SMC which I found useless as a means of learning more about the company or its products. Later I received a very hard-sell telemarketer call from SMC with the caller providing very little information about the company or its products. The telemarketer was clearly pushing the sale of a membership. He was very unprofessional and the whole approach screams scam.”
Many of these infomercials prey on handicapped and senior citizens who can easily be bamboozled into joining these expensive programs. “My mother is a senior citizen and she fell for SMC’s sales pitch. … I later learned that SMC was automatically drawing $39.95 a month out of my mother’s checking account even after Mom had tried to cancel her relationship with SMC.”
Another frustrated SMC member said, “No matter what you try to buy with this company there is always a catch. Always!”
The online search engines are a great way to get a large sampling very quickly about specific infomercial programs and their value – good, bad or ugly – as well as feedback from people who have used these goods or services. A few minutes at the computer may save you hundreds or thousands of dollars.
“Mr. Cunningham” may motivate the consumer to buy into the SMC program with his easy, apparently trustworthy personality, but it seems clear that, from a member’s standpoint, there will be very few “happy days” in the relationship.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT for Better Business Inc., Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit organization. An individual annual membership is $25; business memberships start at $125. For consumer help and information write: Consumer Forum, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329.