The good news is that cable TV shows like "Mad Men" have raised the profile of ad agencies among the general public. The bad news is that such programs have made ad agencies easier to blame for some of the sins of the world.
Case in point: A survey by the Harris Poll shows that more than two-thirds of American adults believe ad agencies bear at least some blame for the economic crisis because they caused people to buy things they couldn't afford. Well over half of the 2,220 respondents also said print and TV caused people to overindulge.
Interestingly, younger people gave agencies and media more of a pass. Three-quarters of people 55 and over say ad agencies have some responsibility, compared with three in five 18- to 34-year-olds.
It's always been good sport in this country to shoot the messenger. Michael Lee, executive director of the International Advertising Association, who brought my attention to the Harris Poll, says: "Yes, let's blame the ad industry for everything, especially seeing as so many people are incapable of making their own decisions and running their own lives."
Michael adds that he has a problem if advertising has been deceptive and persuaded people to make bad decisions -- such as financial deals not fully explained. "But I find it a real stretch to blame the messenger and the message."
The message was clearly that housing prices would keep going up forever. The sad truth is many financial marketers didn't want prospective homebuyers to understand the downside of their transactions -- that interest rates can go up without notice; that buyers were taking on too much debt; that housing values don't always go up. All pretty obvious in hindsight. But at the time, powerful forces were flogging the American dream of home ownership as the ticket to a more stable society.
At the height of the housing boom, mortgage brokers were making money hand-over-fist by approving every applicant that walked in the door -- and some they had to drag in by their heels.
Now the game has changed, but it's still pretty sleazy stuff. Instead of getting prospective homebuyers into a deal, now the same guys are trying to get you out.
The new game is called mortgage modification, and it's encouraged by the government with the same opportunities for abuse as the original mortgage game. As the New York Times reported, "Legislators have put together the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009, a bill that aims, among other things, to prod financial companies into modifying more troubled home loans."
But here's the rub: The "modifications are often restructured to tack on delinquent amounts at the end of the payment schedule," and borrowers tend to default later "with distressing regularity."
The blurring of advertising and editorial is paving the way for some highly questionable tactics in the latest round of financial advertising.
JCR Advertising is running a 30-minute informerical for various mortgage-modification outfits on more than 200 stations disguised to look like a cross between CNBC and CNN, called "Crisis on Main Street."
Pitchmen (and women) masquerading as reporters solemnly talk about how more homeowners are falling behind on their mortgages, saying. "Home ownership is the American dream, so don't let the dream slip away."
The infomercial shows a "reporter" talking in front of the White House, interspersed with clips of Presidents Bush and Obama and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke discussing the severity of the housing crisis. Small print says the spot is "a paid advertisement, not a news broadcast," but it's slugged "Special Report" in bold type at the top of the screen. The Harris Poll said ad agencies make easy scapegoats. Is it any wonder why?