Financial TV guru assailed over ads


CHICAGO -- Suze Orman, it seems, was everywhere in November.

In addition to her usual outlets -- The Suze Orman Show on CNBC each weekend, her occasional appearances on QVC, her pledge-drive specials for PBS -- an estimated 180 million people saw the financial guru pitching General Motors' "Lock 'n Roll" financing plan in an ad campaign that ran for 20 days in November and December, according to GM.

Besides being inescapable, the ads, for which Orman was paid an undisclosed sum to endorse the carmaker's 0 percent interest-rate offer, raised questions about how Orman could claim to give unvarnished advice to CNBC viewers while taking money from GM.

"Her entire persona revolves around giving fair and wise advice to people who rely on her," said David Bernknopf, a media consultant and visiting professor at the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

"And if she's taking money from someone whose business touches on the advice she gives, how can that not raise questions about her fairness and honesty and independence?"

Ronald Duska, an ethics professor at the American College, a school for financial professionals, agreed.

"Just because you're getting paid to say something doesn't mean you shouldn't say it," he said. "But in a sense, she's using her financial credentials to help a company sell a product. That creates problems if she's supposed to be able to stand back and evaluate financial options."

Indeed, those credentials are precisely what made her attractive to GM: "We approached her because she is a widely recognized and respected financial adviser," said GM spokeswoman Deborah Silverman.

Orman bridles at the contention that the ads compromised her integrity. They were, she says, just another way to provide people with financial advice. Besides, she's not a journalist.

"I have now become a celebrity," she said. "Whether the reporters who have bashed me for years want to believe it, Suze Orman has become ... somebody that America has embraced."

And, as such, she says she should be held to the same standard as other celebrities who endorse products.

Whether she's a celebrity or journalist or both, there is no doubt that Orman has a wide following as a financial expert. Her first two books of financial advice sold 3 million copies, according to Publishers Weekly; four of her eight books have become New York Times bestsellers. She's been profiled in innumerable newspapers and magazines, and is a contributing editor to O, the Oprah Magazine. Her CNBC show reaches an average of 120,000 viewers.

Nor is there any doubt that CNBC is usually scrupulous when it comes to ethical guidelines. Every financial professional who appears on the cable network's daytime shows is required to disclose interests in any company they may discuss, including holdings by family members.

Employees are under stricter guidelines -- reporters and correspondents are barred from holding individual securities, lest the prospect of personal enrichment influence their coverage.

"It raised a lot of eyebrows around here when we first saw the GM commercials," said one CNBC staff member. "Clearly it's not something that in general we would be able to do."

The guidelines do not apply to Orman, explained CNBC spokeswoman Amy Zelvin, because Orman owns her show, and CNBC pays her a license fee to air it.

"Suze Orman appears on CNBC as an expert commentator," Zelvin said. "She is not an employee of CNBC and she is not a journalist. As such, she is able and permitted to pursue outside business ventures."

But CNBC's Web site suggests otherwise: Orman is listed as the network's "personal finance editor," a title that suggests both employment and journalistic decision-making.

"I recently resigned from that position," Orman explained. "When all this started with the GM thing, I called up [CNBC Enterprises general manager] Bob Meyers. I said 'Bob, this is ridiculous.' I don't do anything as personal finance editor. It was an empty title really. Why even have it?"

Orman said she retired the title sometime in late November, and that she had been personal finance editor for about three years.

Zelvin, who expressed surprise when informed of the title, said: "We should have been clearer that she's a commentator and not a journalist." (As of late December, CNBC's Web site still identified Orman as personal finance editor on the site's "Anchors and Reporters" page.)

The GM deal is not the first Orman product promotion.

Among the dozens of books and self-help kits she sells on her Web site is the Suze Orman FICO Kit, a $49.95 software package that lets purchasers buy their Fair Isaac credit score.

The kit is part of a marketing campaign by the Minneapolis financial data firm, which pioneered the practice of reducing consumers' financial behavior to a handy score for lenders and creditors. Orman splits revenue from sales of the kits with Fair Isaac.

Three years ago, Orman briefly sold long-term care policies on QVC and her site. The fact that Orman earned a commission off sales and that the policies were underwritten by a division of General Electric, which owns CNBC, caused a squall of press criticism that led her to abandon the project.

Orman said such criticism is unfair. Why, she asked, does nobody question the motives of Meredith Vieira of The View -- a show that Orman frequents when selling her books -- for appearing in ads for Bayer aspirin?

Barbara Lippert, the advertising critic for Adweek, a trade magazine, said Orman is a "hypocrite."

"Suze Orman claims to give uncorrupted advice, yet she's being paid by one of America's largest corporations to flog its brands," she said. "It's a complete conflict of interest."

Orman dismisses such criticism as sour grapes.

"They hate Suze Orman and love to bash me because they're so jealous of my success," she said. "They just cannot understand how it is that I've sold millions of copies of books, I won an Emmy Award this year, my show on CNBC is the highest-rated show on weekends. How is any of that possible? They hate me because I tell people the truth."

(In fact, Orman's show is CNBC's second-rated weekend show, behind Tim Russert.)

She did the GM ad, she said, because it was good advice. "It was a great deal. Honest to God, or I wouldn't have done it."

The problem, Lippert said, is that Orman has made a career of telling people not to do things like buy new cars. The fact that she's reversing herself in a paid endorsement deal makes her even more suspect.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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