Every media outlet has its share of advertising for shady products that don’t perform as promised. Colon treatments, male enhancement treatments, hair loss treatments, speculative investments, Internet business ventures that don’t require you to work, companies claiming to help people get out of debt, lump-sum structured settlement companies, companies that sell you incorporation materials or other information readily available for free—these are some of the shady products and services most frequently advertised in print, TV, radio and Internet media.
Now I’m not talking about legitimate products or services for which deceptive claims are made, but those which have no inherent value, are harmful, or for which the value is much less than the inflated price. Sometimes it’s a fine line: for example, as much as I dislike most of the products for sale on home shopping programs and infomercials, they mostly inhabit the world of the legitimate. So do ambulance-chasing attorneys, since they perform a legitimate function (except for those whose practice is solely based on taking a third of the client’s money for doing nothing but filing papers and settling with the insurance company).
No, I’m talking about the out-and-out scam products, although some are legal, or at least legal enough.
My perception as a mass media critic is that while the ads for shady products pockmark all media, it is only a big problem for one, and it’s not the Internet! The Internet is a vast unregulated garden of both delights and deceptions, which means you can find just about any and every scam online, but they’re drowning along with everything else in an endless ocean of web pages. And ads for shady products are also really at the margin of programming in television and print media.
But listening to talk-oriented radio over the past 25 years has always given me the impression that the shady product dominates this media segment to such a degree that if radio stations did what they should, which is to raise the standard of the ads they accept for commercial products and services, then talk radio could not raise enough advertising dollars to support continued broadcast.
To test this hypothesis, I asked my assistant Colette to listen to three local talk radio stations in Pittsburgh for a three-hour period and record all the commercials. I asked her to listen to the three types of programming that dominate talk radio:
- Sports talk: “Mike & Mike,” an immensely popular national morning sports talk show on ESPN.
- Conservative talk show hosts: The “Rush Limbaugh” show.
- All-news: An all news radio station that does not broadcast National Public Radio during drive time.
Colette surfed back and forth between the three programming formats, listening to each a total of 60 minutes, so we could get a randomized sense of advertising on talk radio. To really be sure of the results, though, we would have to listen for many more hours and in more than one market. And to really drill down into the reality of talk radio advertising, we would have to record the data by type or programming and time of day.
The results of our small test, however, are so stunning, that they just about demonstrate the enormous importance of the scam product to talk radio:
Colette recorded 31 ads during the three hours of listening of which 16 were for scam products and 15 were for legitimate products. Thus, slightly more than 50% of the revenues produced during this three-hour randomized spin around the universe of talk radio came from scam products and services, including:
- Debt settlement company #1
- Debt settlement company #2
- Debt settlement company #3
- Unpaid tax settlement firm #1
- Unpaid tax settlement firm #2
- Stock tips by email
- Lump sum payment for a structured settlement
- Investing in gold #1
- Investing in gold #2 (the company with which Glen Beck is associated)
- Personal identity protection (the company that has been in the news for its shady claims)
What surprised me is that during this listening period, Colette heard no spots making health claims. My anecdotal memory tells me that those spots mostly run on afternoons, weekends and overnight, but we would have to extend the study to test that hypothesis.