These ads are everywhere!
The multinational, multibillion-dollar bank, JP Morgan & Chase, spent about $1.9 billion on advertising in 2013. That was down from a peak of $2.35 billion in 2011, but still one of the largest amounts by any bank. With that kind of money, you should be curious what they get in return.
Advertisements for companies like Chase, Citigroup, Barclays, and others are plastered over billboards, magazines, newspapers, and websites. You’ve likely passed by one of their ads today if you live in a modest size city. Heck, there could be one next to this article, due to the Google ads running on Frugaling!
That money is spent to attract new “customers” of credit. Their hope is to entice people with signup bonus offers, and keep them for life. After they click an ad, sign up online, and begin to swipe, the banks begin to profit. From credit card transaction fees to late payment fees to cash advance fees to interest rate fees, companies enjoy lucrative profits. For every new customer, banks trust they’ll make hundreds of dollars over the next few years – if not more.
Personal finance writers are easily influenced
Those advertising pressures and interests can trickle down. Websites that aim to address personal finance concerns and offer advice might succumb to the fire hose of potential profit available to them. With my hat in hand, I must admit I was one of them.
I made thousands of dollars in about 1.5 years by marketing credit cards. By placing links to select offers, I was able to make $50, $75, and even $150 per person who signed up. The affiliate money helped me radically change my life and pay off my debt. But as it helped me pay off my debt, I began to see how I had been duped.
In financially unsound and uncertain situations, people do things they’d rather not do. Frankly, society sometimes encourages us to put our heads down and work through the pain and ethical dilemmas – ignore your internal compass for the good of the company, profit, and revenue. I had become one of those people.
When reviews are really advertisements
Reviews aim to feature both the pros and cons of certain products. Readers want honest feedback and advice from authors, but they weren’t getting it. Visitors to my site were coming droves to see my “reviews.” But that’s not what they were really getting.
Unfortunately, moneyed interests in banking have a tremendous sway on the rating of products. Look through many websites that market credit and banking products, and you’ll begin to notice an overwhelming pattern of 4- and 5-star reviews – across the board. With this positivity, you’d expect credit cards to wash your dishes, clean your laundry, and chauffeur you to work.
How could any company’s product be rated this highly? There’s a reason for optimism and it all comes down to money. Those advertising dollars – billions from banks – trickle down to the simplest of bloggers, directly influence the content, favorability, and overall reviews.
Visitors who are interested in honest, open advice might be shocked to know that when they click that link to sign up, they are crediting that blogger hundreds of dollars in the process. Even more, that the entire review was fabricated to drive more clicks to the bank’s site. When I wrote these articles, I suppressed the negatives to encourage clicks. I was advertising products, and framing them as reviews.
Credit cards aren’t the devil, but they’re not for everyone
We live in a world where big banks spend billions to get at us. Their money travels onto TV, print, and diverse digital media. Eventually, it even lands into the pockets of personal finance websites. That’s when the magical influence occurs, and people end up following the manipulated “advice” of trusted sources.
With revenue pouring over the Internet from companies, my real advice is simple: be skeptical. My hope is that no one gets tricked into thinking that a writer completely – and out of his or her own volition and without profit motive – decides to write a credit card review.
Here are 9 important questions you should ask yourself before following any credit card review:
- Do the reviews link directly to the bank’s sign up forms?
- Are there affiliate tags embedded in the links?
- What makes the writer optimistic about the company and card?
- Do they personally use all of these cards that they recommend?
- What income bracket is the reviewer in?
- What’s their credit score?
- What was their experience with customer service representatives?
- How long has the reviewer been providing advice?
- What makes them an expert in credit cards?
- How might incentives influence the quality of this review?
Credit cards aren’t the devil, and they don’t tend to be the sole contributor to debt. Usually, it’s a lifestyle of spending more than you can afford, with little income to pay the bills. That doesn’t mean excessive purchases at Burberry and Hermes; rather, that any amount over what you take in will lead to debt (groceries included). Credit cards just facilitate that process – faster – as the fees quickly compound.
When personal finance writers begin to weigh in, it’s vital that their advice be accurate, fair, and balanced. Unfortunately, it’s frequently manipulated by advertising revenue potential. I learned how the money could influence what I ultimately write, and I no longer want to lobby for an industry that sometimes preys off of people that genuinely need help. If you see a review article from me, it’s my hope to be as analytical as possible.