March 2007 - Per Inquiry

Results May Vary

By Rick Petry

Disclaimer: Some readers of the following column may be amused and entertained; others may be put off by a perceived self-indulgent rant. Results may vary.

A few years ago, a client of mine who was sponsoring a car at the Indy 500 was gracious enough to invite me along. Just prior to the start of the race, a parade of stars was introduced. Who do you suppose elicited the greatest ovation from the crowd? Was it pop star and Proactiv endorser Jessica Simpson? Late night star cum racing team leader David Letterman? Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors singing “Back Home in Indiana” just prior to “Lady (thank you, Danica Patrick) and gentlemen, start your engines?” No, it was Jared Fogle. Jared Fogle? Yes, Jared-the Subway Guy.

I mention all this because as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) begins the process of reviewing its policy on testimonials in advertising, Jared and the billowing pants he used to wear when he was 235 pounds heavier are about to endure the kind of scrutiny serial dieters reserve for their waistline. The FTC is examining whether highlighting such extraordinary cases of success within advertising creates expectations in the mind of the consumer that are misleading or even deceptive, even though they may be accompanied by a disclaimer along the lines of “results not typical.” Given the prevalence in health, fitness and even financial direct marketing of such endorsements, this may threaten a core device advertisers have long employed to spur couch potatoes to take action.

The Jareds of the world are aspirational catalysts who inspire others to change their lives. Does anyone really think that by working out at 24 Hour Fitness, they can ride a bicycle like Lance Armstrong? No, but by endorsing this chain, Armstrong may lead the target audience to healthier living. Similarly, a tearful weight-loss infomercial testimonial that causes a viewer to pick up the phone could be viewed as a public service. Given the rate of obesity in America, shouldn’t these authentic testimonials be framed in a positive light?

In a world with scant heroes, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that commoner Jared received the greatest roar at Indy. Subway has tried many different campaigns in the near-decade since our bespectacled everyman first “ate fresh,” but keeps coming back to the icon that represents the ability of the average person to achieve extraordinary results. And what of the role of personal responsibility in making choices (something I would think our government would want to extol)? Having sat through countless focus groups, I can attest that consumers pay close attention to those mouse-typed disclaimers, and comprehend every word. The FTC should give them more credit. Perhaps a more appropriate disclaimer for such testimonials would be: “Individual desire or will may vary.” Fat chance.

Rick Petry is chairman of the ERA Board of Directors and the chief marketing officer of Downstream. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].


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