January 06, 2012

How to Predict the Future

In DRTV, predicting the future isn't always difficult. Guessing what items consumers will buy? That's hard. Guessing which campaigns are likely to run into trouble for making dubious claims? Not so much ...

I was reminded of this today while reading an Electronic Retailer article by the inimitable Greg Sater about an ERSP inquiry into certain claims made by the Belly Burner people. Greg writes:

[They] made claims such as 'Get rid of belly fat,' 'Shed away unwanted inches,' 'Burn fat faster while walking, biking, jogging -- any form of exercise,' and 'Heat vision photography shows how the Belly Burner raises your body's core temperature, supercharging the calorie burning process.' "

Here's what I wrote in my review of the product one year before this was reported: "I think the product lacks credibility and the claims they're making will be a problem."

So do I have mystical powers? Not quite. In truth, anyone can be a swami when it comes to predicting the future of DRTV commercials that make such claims. Greg sums up:

In 2011, when it came to body shaping products, ERSP wanted to see not only solid science supporting claims, but also supporting the use of testimonials.

Yes, solid science is always good when you can get it, but I think staying out of trouble requires much less. More on that in a moment.

Something similar to the amazing Belly Burner prediction happened with iRenew. In my review at the end of August 2010, I referenced the Q-Ray bracelet ($87 million in fines) and Kinoki Foot Pads (shredded by 20/20 and the FTC) and concluded: "If this campaign is successful ... I wouldn't spend the money."

After I wrote that, three things of note occurred:

  • The ERSP announced that the marketers of iRenew had "agreed to modify or discontinue a wide range of claims."
  • A Michigan attorney sued and asked for "approval to sue on behalf of the hundreds of people who reportedly purchased the bracelets."
  • The product took a major beating in the press. Both John Stossel, the guy behind the Kinoki 20/20 story, and a May ABC special called "Infomercial Nation" took issue with the product's claims. (Incidentally, Belly Burner was targeted in the same special.)

Nowhere near as serious as what happened to the Q-Ray or foot-pad guys, to be sure, but I still looked prescient. So how did I do it? I think it's obvious, but just in case: Here's my step-by-step guide to performing the magic trick:

  1. Start by staying informed. You don't need a law degree to know that the regulating bodies are paying close attention to our industry or to be aware of the red flags they look for. They often put out articles and press releases explaining exactly what they find problematic. To cite a classic example from a few years ago, when the FTC publicly launches something called "Operation Big Fat Lie", you are a fool if you don't sit up and take careful notes. That operation targeted the diet category, but it wasn't hard to extrapolate to other categories, such as fitness.
  3. Next, listen to your conscience. That little voice? That feeling in your stomach? Don't discount them. Just like you, regulators have little voices and uneasy stomachs, too.
  5. Finally, practice before a live audience. We've all experienced it: A "friend" or family member makes us the butt of a joke because of some absurd claim he or she heard in one of our commercials. By then, of course, it's too late. The commercial is in rollout and that regulator, if he is noting the claim, isn't laughing -- at least not with you. So why not start earlier by reading your scripts aloud to a trusted friend or family member, just to see if that line your little voice doesn't like sets off her alarm bells as well?

In retrospect, these problems that emerge always seem highly preventable to me, and I don't think I'm alone in thinking that. All it takes is a little discipline and most of these problems can easily be avoided. In fact, there are whole categories that probably should be avoided ... but that is a post for another time.

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