FreeCreditReport.com vs. AnnualCreditReport.com.

Advertising deconstructed.
April 6 2009 11:24 AM

Credit Crunch

The hottest fight in advertising is about credit-report Web sites.

The Spot:A guy plays guitar in an Irish-themed bar. He's accompanied by a drummer and a bassist. All three wear kilts. "AnnualCreditReport.com," the guy sings, "the one you can depend upon." He goes on to describe the hazards of signing up with other credit-monitoring Web sites: "Beware of the others. There's always a catch./ They claim to be free, but strings are attached./ Their ads can be funny, so don't be deceived./ Hold onto your money. There's one site you need."

Do-gooder public-service announcements have long been a part of the advertising landscape. PSAs are often mockably earnest and dorky, but they can serve a useful purpose by alerting you to important information. Consider this piece Ad Report Card's contribution to the PSA genre. I'm donating this valuable space to spread the word about AnnualCreditReport.com—a wonderfully useful Web site that's currently being promoted by a pair of videos produced by the Federal Trade Commission.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

You've no doubt seen the TV ads for a different credit-check site, called FreeCreditReport.com. Those ones where a sunny-faced, curly-haired dude sings narrative pop songs about the calamities he's endured as a result of his poor credit. This unfortunate fellow is reduced to working in a tacky, pirate-themed restaurant because "some hacker stole my ID"; buying a subcompact jalopy because his "credit was wack"; and living in a basement because of his wife's previous default on a credit card.

These ads have warm, vibrant visuals. (They're directed by Danny Leiner, who's helmed similarly low-key, goofball comedies like Dude, Where's My Car? and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.) They feature an appealing slacker protagonist. But above all, they benefit from a slew of maddeningly catchy songs, executed in a wide variety of genres.

These bouncy tunes were composed by an amateur musician—a guy at the ad agency whose only previous musical success involved a blistering set at the agency's holiday staff party. In an e-mail exchange, he told me he wrote most of the songs in one 48-hour period after "going away with my guitar and a cheap bottle of Chianti." He attributes their impact to the notion that they're written "not from the viewpoint of a company with a product to sell, but from the perspective of a character with a story to tell. So you don't feel like you're being bombarded with an ad message; you just feel like you're getting a glimpse into this guy's life. Which just happens to involve a recurring theme of regret at not having gone to FreeCreditReport.com."

All fine and good. There can be no doubt that these are terrifically effective ads, which is why they continue to be produced and aired. But here's the catch: FreeCreditReport.com is nothing less than a force for heinous evil. It lures you in with its offer of a "free" credit check, but its hidden goal is to enroll you in a service that charges $15 a month.

(Please wait a moment while I clear my throat, furrow my brow, and look straight into the camera. OK, here goes.)

You can get a truly free, no-strings-attached credit report by directing your browser to AnnualCreditReport.com. I just tried it. It works. (In case you're curious, my credit is unblemished. Though, ironically, I still drive a used subcompact.) You have the right to one free report per year from each of the three major consumer-credit-reporting services. Which means if you stagger them out, you can check your credit, gratis, once every four months. That should be plenty.

The FTC's videos, which parody the FreeCreditReport.com ads, don't have the same glossy production values. The lead actor is less camera-friendly. The songs kind of suck—with clunky lyrics and boring harmonic concepts. But cut these guys a break: The advertising budget for FreeCreditReport.com was more than $70 million in 2007 and probably even higher in 2008. The annual budget of the entire FTC is less than $260 million.

The two FTC spots—which between them cost $100,000 to produce—have been released only on the Web. According to Nat Wood, assistant director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, these days it's far more efficient to distribute PSAs online than to try to get them on television. "It's very tough to get PSAs on the air in prime time, where people will see them," says Wood. "Most of what you see in the prime hours are things like 'The More You Know' campaign, which the network produces itself, on issues it chooses, cross-promoting its own stars."

I salute the FTC's thrifty, new-media strategy. I also applaud their message. That's why I'm reposting their videos here, in an effort to further their cause.

And that's … one to grow on!

Grade: B+. Kudos to the FTC for fighting the good fight. Deductions for severe aesthetic lameness. By the way, there's something I've never understood about the FreeCreditReport.com ads: How exactly would the guy's circumstances change if he'd known in advance that his credit was bad? Until he repairs his credit, he'll still get negged on that car loan for a "cool convertible." And, unless he's a cold and heartless person, you'd expect him to stay with his self-professed "dream girl" even after discovering that her credit was less than stellar. If I ever get him as my waiter at the local pirate restaurant, I'm going to ask him about this.

Is there an ad you love, hate, or can't for the life of you understand? Send your suggestions to adreportcard@gmail.com.

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