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Consumer Confidential: Low mortgage rates, formidable food ads

Homepic Here's your the-very-thought-of-you Thursday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- In the market for a mortgage? Boy, have banks got a deal for you. Mortgage rates have never been cheaper, with the 30-year rate falling below 4% for the first time in history. The interest rate on a 30-year fixed-rate loan fell to 3.94% this week, the lowest rate since mortgage giant Freddie Mac began tracking it. Meanwhile, the average for a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage also hit a record, falling to 3.26%. The dirt-cheap mortgage rates can result in considerable savings for homeowners. Compared with just three months ago, when the 30-year was at 4.60%, borrowers today can save about $40 a month per $100,000 borrowed. That comes to a savings of nearly $14,000 for every $100,000 borrowed over the life of the 30-year loan.

-- Your kids pay more attention to Madison Avenue than to you when it comes to food. Food ads have more clout when it comes to children's food selection than even an involved parent, a new study in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests. The findings came as a surprise to researchers who were trying to determine the effect of commercials on kids' diets. Researchers from Texas A&M International University studied 75 children between the ages of 3 and 8. The children were shown a film that included two cartoons with three commercials in between each cartoon. Afterward, it turned out that the commercials had more influence over kids' decisions than the prodding of parents. Gosh, I wonder if that could be contributing to our obesity epidemic in any way ...

-- David Lazarus

Photo: If you're shopping for a new home, you can get sweet deals on loans. Credit:  Larry Downing  / Reuters


Honda replaces Mr. Opportunity with 'Seinfeld' actor

Mr.opportunity Mr. Opportunity should stop knocking. Honda’s found a new (and human) spokesman.

The animated character was known for his appearances in the automaker’s commercials for clearance events –- and for irritating legions of consumers with his blandness.

The “I Hate Mr. Opportunity!” Facebook page is filled with distaste for his “carefully ironed khaki trousers” and his similarity to “your high school geometry teacher.” The group’s description says: “Every time his commercials air, his personality grates on us, like the proverbial pebble in our collective shoe.”

Last year, one of Mr. Opportunity’s ads was voted the third worst in the country by visitors to the Consumerist blog, behind spots from Staples and Quiznos. 

But lately, those viewers have noticed Mr. Opportunity’s absence from television screens and radio waves. Former "Seinfeld" actor Patrick Warburton is in his place on-air, calling himself an "all-out-multimedia-Honda-knowledge-dropping-tour-de-force.”

Warburton even takes a shot at Mr. Opportunity: “This year, they sent a man in to do a cartoon man’s job.”

The character’s demise stems from the ripple effect of the Japanese earthquake earlier this year on the supply chain and summer promotional campaigns, according to Honda’s ad agency RPA, via the Consumerist. Still, both RPA and Honda say Mr. Opportunity may not be gone for good.



9/11 anniversary advertising -- appropriate or exploitative?

Burger King freshens advertising campaign, kicks out the King

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Mr. Opportunity. Credit: Honda

Video: Patrick Warburton in Honda's "Good Reasons" campaign.

9/11 anniversary advertising -- appropriate or exploitative?


The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on Sunday had advertisers stepping gingerly.

Many companies chose to eschew commercials, instead posting simple notes on websites or social network profiles.

Wal-Mart put up a photo of the American flag on Facebook — a post liked by more than 42,000 people. It also garnered nearly 2,000 comments, including one from Trina Littlefield Stratman: “Thank you for the flag, not an advertisement today.”

Some businesses put out “tribute” advertisements. Budweiser created a television spot featuring its team of Clydesdale horses trotting toward New York and then kneeling toward the city. State Farm and director Spike Lee assembled a group of New York schoolchildren and filmed them serenading local firefighters with Alicia Keys’ song “Empire State of Mind (Part II).”

More than 450 digital billboards owned by Clear Channel Outdoor observed an hour and 17 minutes of  silence Sunday. The company ran memorial ads once a minute for the rest of the day.

The terror attacks have always been tricky for advertisers to navigate.

One older spot from MTV shows a starving child on the Brooklyn Bridge with the World Trade Center on fire in the background and the caption “the world united against terrorism. It should also be united against ... HUNGER.” Consumers went nuts over that one, and most not in a good way.

Days ago, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had to perform quick cosmetic surgery on a television campaign ad originally featuring an opponent’s corporate jet headed toward the Manhattan skyline. The current spot features just the plane.

What do you think of 9/11 advertising? Is it appropriate or exploitative?



Sept. 11 remembered in Los Angeles

10 years after 9/11, the airline industry is looking up

-- Tiffany Hsu

Videos: (top) Budweiser's 9/11 tribute.

(bottom) State Farm's 9/11 tribute.

Retail Roundup: Athleta stores, Citadel Outlets job fair, Learning Express

-- Athleta, Gap Inc.'s activewear brand, will open its first store in Southern California on Wednesday. The store, at Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach, is the fourth Athleta store opening this year.

The brand, until recently only available online and through its catalog, is slowly breaking into the bricks-and-mortar space. Athleta currently operates two stores in the Bay Area and two in New York, with additional openings slated to open this fall in Los Angeles (at the Grove), Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. The company plans to open 50 Athleta stores in the U.S. by 2013.

-- Mark your calendars: Citadel Outlets and the City of Commerce Employment & Business Development Center will host an annual job fair at the shopping center Wednesday, Sept. 21. The job fair, in its third year, will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Employers including Puma, Penske Motor Group, Guess by Marciano, Pacific College and Clearpoint Financial Solutions will be on interview to meet job candidates, who should "dress for success" and bring resumes.

A one-hour mini job prep workshop will be held at 9 a.m. Last year more than 5,000 job seekers met with potential employers; this year the City of Commerce mall says it expects 8,000 attendees.

-- Animal rights group is asking Learning Express stores to stop selling live frogs as toys, citing animal welfare and health concerns. The organization, which has circulated 1,000 petition signatures, says the educational toy retailer is selling live African dwarf frogs in 4-square-inch plastic cubes called "EcoAquariums." Other retailers, including Target, Brookstone and toy store chains, have stopped selling the animals.

-- Andrea Chang

Can good online reviews be bought?

Yelp-395 TripAdvisor Does that bistro down the street get an awful lot of online love for its superior service, delectable menu and charming location? Those glowing reports might be the result of reviewers-for-hire, according to several recent reports.

Review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp wield substantial influence over indecisive consumers, a reality not lost on restaurants, hotels and even merchants on eager to attract clientele.

Enter the bustling business of reviewing for profit, where fake evaluators offer to post positive recommendations online for a fee.

Freelance writers are hired by “review factories” to churn out five-star love-fests, according to a recent New York Times report.

There’s so much “deceptive opinion spam” -- fictitious opinions designed to seem authentic -- that a group of Cornell researchers crafted a computer algorithm to root out the fakes. (Apparently, words including “I” and “my” show up a lot in the sham reviews.)

Though many customers seem resigned to online ratings inflation, several threads on Yelp’s talk forums feature users griping about sketchy review practices.

Among them: businesses offering gifts in exchange for positive reviews, managers creating Yelp accounts just to promote their company and cookie-cutter opining applied to multiple establishments.


A field guide to Yelp reviewers

Software aims to spot fake online hotel reviews

-- Tiffany Hsu

Mayan group's logo too much like Toucan Sam, Kellogg's squawks

Toucan Kellogg’s feathers are ruffled over a case of too many toucans.

The cereal giant has asked a Bay Area Mayan nonprofit organization to remove an image of the tropical bird in its logo, claiming that it could be confused with Kellogg’s trademarked Froot Loops mascot, Toucan Sam.

MayaThe San Ramon-based Maya Archaeology Initiative said its toucan looks nothing like Kellogg’s cartoon and that the two birds aren’t in competition.

Dozens of toucan species exist. The Toucan Sam variety -- known to kids as the bird on TV that “follows his nose ... it always knows” -- has been around since 1963, according to its Kellogg's bio. 

Kellogg's, based in Battle Creek, Mich., did not immediately provide comment.

The group added its own accusation: Kellogg’s Froot Loops advertising strategy sends racist messages to its young target audience with the presence of a dark-skinned villain named the Greedy Witch Doctor who steals from children, it said.


-- Tiffany Hsu

Images, from top: Boxes of Kellogg's cereals on a grocery store shelf; the Maya Archaeology Initiative logo. Credits: Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press; Maya Archaeology Initiative

Video: Pepper Films Inc.

Burger King freshens advertising campaign, kicks out the King

BURGERKING Down with the King. Burger King is overthrowing its bizarre monarch mascot and swearing allegiance to a new character: its food.

What a concept. The struggling fast-food chain’s new advertising campaign, launching this weekend, will focus adoringly on the preparation of fresh ingredients rather than the King's odd antics, the company said.

The migration to healthy menus is a move being taken by most of Burger King’s competitors. Restaurants that once reveled in fatty dishes served up in huge portions are increasingly offering smaller, low-calorie plates.

And on Monday, Burger King will roll out its new, guacamole-filled California Whopper burger nationwide.

The accompanying advertisements from the McGarry Bowen firm will feature lush images of avocados, tomatoes, lettuce and beef. In such a body-conscious realm, there seems to be no place for a plasticized sovereign derided by many customers as creepy instead of edgy.

“That’s not to say that in the future, we don’t introduce him in some other form,” said spokesman Miguel Piedra. “But our new marketing approach is more food-centric.”

Besides, the King has long been usurped by a clown named Ronald. McDonald’s pulled in $1.4 billion in net income in its second quarter, a 15% increase year over year. Burger King’s net income slipped 13% in its second quarter to $42.8 million.


Healthier fast food for kids?

A brewski for Burger King

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: A poster with Burger King's outgoing mascot is displayed at a restaurant in Salt Lake City. Credit: Douglas C. Pizac / Associated Press

Nivea's 're-civilize' ad called racist; company apologizes

Nivea’s “Look like you give a damn” campaign: Does it contain a deliberately racist suggestion that black people aren’t civilized or an unintentional gaffe by the skin care company’s marketing team?

The print ad in question features a clean-shaven black man grasping the longer hair on a bearded mask of his own face, preparing to throw it away. The phrase “Re-civilize yourself” is boldly emblazoned over the image.

The Internet erupted in fury over the ad, with calls that songstress and Nivea spokeswoman Rihanna disown the company.

Facebook users began posting photos of themselves with Afros on Nivea’s wall, saying things such as: “I wear my hair natural and I just graduated with my doctorate! So who needs to be re-civilized?? Nivea no longer welcomed in my household.”

Some suggested that the backlash could increase sales of products geared toward black people from other companies.

Nivea, owned by German parent Beiersdorf, responded on its wall with an apology:

Thank you for caring enough to give us your feedback about the recent 'Re-civilized' NIVEA FOR MEN ad. This ad was inappropriate and offensive. It was never our intention to offend anyone, and for this we are deeply sorry. This ad will never be used again. Diversity and equal opportunity are crucial values of our company.

No word on whether a companion advertisement -- featuring a clean-shaven white man grasping the longer hair on bearded mask of his own face, preparing to throw it away -- will also be nixed.

The text on that one: “Sin City isn’t an excuse to look like hell.”


New 'Got Milk' campaign misfire?

How should celebrities react to the John Galliano scandal?

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo credit: Nivea

Extreme couponer gets arrested for -- that's right -- stealing old newspapers


Arrest report of extreme couponer

Exactly how far would you go to cut back on your weekly grocery bill?

Meet Jamie L. VanSickler, busted hard-core couponer.

The 34-year-old woman from Lowell, Ark., was arrested this month on a misdemeanor charge of larceny theft. She is accused of stealing copies of old Sunday newspapers in order to bulk up her collection of coupons and save her family some money.

According to the arrest report filed by the Springdale (Ark.) Police Department, VanSickler was really into clipping coupons -- really, really, really into it.

Police received a tip that someone was making off with bundles of newspaper when a worker from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette complained that something was wrong.

Newspaper carriers who were stocking up bins and area grocery stores were seeing their Sunday papers flying off the shelf. But the sales receipts weren’t adding up, according to the police report.
The newspaper suspected that someone -– or more than one person -– was illicitly snapping up the coupon-heavy Sunday editions.

At one grocery store, market workers would bag up the Sunday copies that didn’t sell and put them outside on top of the trash cans for the paper carrier to pick up. (The carrier gets paid for each paper that sells. The copies that don’t sell are sent back to the paper and, along with the coupons, destroyed.)

But they were being stolen before the paper’s workers could retrieve them.

“The suspects are getting out of their car and hurriedly walking towards the newspapers and they steal them and then leave quickly,” according to the report.

So a Democrat-Gazette carrier essentially set up a one-man undercover sting at a grocery store. He reported to the police that he saw VanSickler and a male drive into the parking lot: “It appeared that the male subject was standing around as a lookout while the female was loading the papers into the trunk,” according to the police report. When the witness tried to contact the pair, they hopped into the car “after only taking two bags of newspapers” and sped out of the parking lot.

VanSickler later told police that she had taken the papers from the grocery store for more than a month, but that a cashier had told her it was OK.

“Jamie also said that she did not think it was wrong and gave the comparison of someone leaving [their] camera in the parking lot and being able to keep it since it was left there. … [S]he figured that someone would tell her to stop doing it if she was not supposed to,” according to the report.

That raises an interesting point: If the papers were outside, on the trash cans, is taking them simply an act of dumpster-diving?

Authorities estimate VanSickler, a self-described "extreme couponer," took at least 185 papers, worth a total of $231.25.

VanSickler could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Alanna M. Fairrell, and police officials did not return calls for comment Monday morning.

But in a statement reportedly posted on an Arkansas TV station’s website, VanSickler said she is “shocked and embarrassed by the whole situation, since she obtained permission from [grocery store] Harps prior to taking any newspapers, and she was just trying to save some money.”

Larry Graham, circulation manager for the Democrat-Gazette, said the paper is still deciding whether to pursue the case further.

“We just want her not to do this anymore,” Graham said. “This is theft. It’s no different than walking into the produce section, stuffing something in your pockets and walking out.”


Document: Read the full arrest report

Groupon changes accounting method, reports losses

Wake up and hear the rewards clamor, CVS

Gasoline prices still dropping; oil prices rebound

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: A couponer clips and organizes coupons. Credit: Craig Kohlruss / Fresno Bee/MCT

Groupon changes accounting method, reports losses

Consumer Confidential: Mean money, Google phones, wiener war

Grinchpic Here's your maybe-baby Monday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- It pays to be mean. According to a new study, "agreeable" workers make significantly less money than their nastier counterparts, with the gap wider among men. The study, titled "Do Nice Guys -- and Gals -- Really Finish Last?", uses survey data to examine "agreeableness" and finds that men who disagree with others often make 18%, or $9,772 annually, more in salary than those who agree with colleagues. The salary disparity is far less among women, with disagreeable females making 5%, or $1,828, more than nicer women. As Cornell professor Beth Livingston, who co-authored the study with Timothy Judge of the University of Notre Dame and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, told the Wall Street Journal: "Nice guys are getting the shaft."

-- Google is diving deeper into the smartphone business by purchasing Motorola Mobility Holdings for $12.5 billion. The deal gives Google its own in-house hardware operation, potentially enabling it to challenge rival Apple on better terms but also raising questions for partners like Samsung Electronics that license Google's Android operating system. It also gives Google ownership of a huge trove of patents that it will be able to use to defend itself amid an increasing fierce war over intellectual property among technology companies. Google expects to complete the transaction by early 2012, and it's been approved by the boards of both companies.

--The wiener war is underway in federal court. The nation's two largest hot dog makers have taken their legal beefs to a judge, who opened a trial Monday on whether the rivals behind Oscar Mayer and Ball Park franks broke false-advertising laws in their efforts to become top dog. The dispute pits Chicago-area companies Sara Lee, which makes Ball Park franks, against Kraft Foods, which makes Oscar Mayer. Sara Lee fired the first volley in a 2009 lawsuit singling out Oscar Mayer ads that brag its dogs beat out Ball Park franks in a national taste test. Those tests, Sara Lee argues, stacked the deck against Ball Park in part by altering the way the hot dogs were cooked and served. Kraft filed its own lawsuit in 2009, alleging that Sara Lee ran false and deceptive ads including a campaign in which Ball Parks are heralded as "America's Best Franks."

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Mean people make more green stuff, a study says. Credit: Universal Studios


Consumer Confidential: New watchdog agency, safer Toyotas, Kardashian sues

Karpic Here's your hold-that-tiger Thursday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opens for business Thursday. This is arguably the most important advance for consumers from Uncle Sam in years. The bureau will incorporate regulatory powers from about half a dozen existing agencies but will focus exclusively on ensuring that consumers are getting a fair shake from credit-card issuers, mortgage lenders and other financial-services companies. President Obama has nominated former Ohio Atty. Gen. Richard Cordray to run the agency, but Republican lawmakers say they won't approve anyone until they get changes in how the watchdog bureau is run. Until a director is installed, some regulatory powers, such as oversight of payday loans, will remain sidelined.

-- This is kind of cool: Toyota is developing new technology that takes control of the steering so your car can veer away when it isn't able to stop before a crash. Cars that stop or slow down automatically before an object or person in anticipation of a possible crash are not new. But Toyota's latest precollision system adds a steering-control feature. In the new system, Toyota uses cameras and a super sensitive radar called "millimeter-wave," both installed in the front of the vehicle, to detect possible crashes such as a pedestrian crossing the road. The vehicle calculates how braking and steering must be applied to avoid a crash. No word on when the technology will be rolled out commercially.

-- Kim Kardashian probably won't be shopping at Old Navy anytime soon (if she ever did). The reality show starlet, who is famous for, well, whatever, is suing the clothing store and its parent company, Gap, in a Los Angeles federal court alleging their ads violate her publicity rights because they feature a woman who looks like Kardashian. A video of a broadcast ad featuring a smiling, dark-haired woman who bears a resemblance to the real Kardashian has been viewed more than 2 million times on Old Navy's YouTube channel. Kardashian's lawsuit says consumers may be confused by the ads and the model's actual endorsements, which include her own clothing store and shoe line. Meanwhile, there's no truth to the rumor that Kardashian and I are anything more than just friends. I just want to put that to rest.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: That's the real Kim Kardashian, and she's hopping mad at Old Navy. Credit: Paul Hackett/Reuters



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