Interview conducted and edited by Lisa Guyott in the Fall 2011 Edition of B. Magazine.
From a vigilance committee to secret shoppers, the president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota explains how the organization has evolved during its first 100 years.
How did the Better Business Bureau get its start?
The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota was the first BBB – in the world! Our roots trace back to 1912 in Minneapolis, when local business leaders banded together to promote truth in advertising, forming a “vigilance committee” of the Minneapolis Advertising Federation dedicated to ensuring an ethical marketplace.
Speaking of an ethical marketplace, how does the BBB ensure such a thing?
The BBB has trained operators available to answer questions from the public and help them make informed purchasing decisions. We’re also constantly monitoring the marketplace for scams that target both businesses and consumers, and we expose these scams through media releases.
Thanks to the support of our accredited businesses, we’re able to provide a forum where businesses and customers can resolve their differences; monitor advertising in Minnesota and North Dakota and challenge hundreds of questionable advertising claims each year; keep the public in the know about fraudulent offers and unethical business practices through our network of media contacts; offer free business reviews on both accredited and non-accredited businesses; and provide a forum where businesses and entire industries can come together in the very best of self-governance models to police their own activities.
What is the process you use for challenging questionable advertising claims?
Our staff gathers on a weekly basis to review newspapers from 20 markets in our region, clipping ads with claims that violate codes of advertising or just seem too good to be true. We also review online and broadcast media. Often, our cadre of volunteer secret shoppers actually will test the ads for veracity. Then our ad review staff contacts the advertiser and asks for substantiation of the claims or suggests modifications. While we have no legal clout or authority, advertisers respond favorably to us with surprising frequency, often because the ads were placed incorrectly out of ignorance, or because the companies wish to avoid the stigma of a negative report with the BBB.
Can you provide an example of a story from one of your secret shoppers or perhaps a “too-good-to-be-true” ad?
While we regularly uncover offers that are too good to be true (e.g., retailers who jack up the prices for items before offering a “BOGO” sale) and uncover bait-and-switch tactics (where a widely advertised item is available in the store in a quantity of one or very few), one of our recent cases posed some interesting ethical questions.
Consumers informed us of a company offering to write essays or complete homework for college or high school students for a fee, also guaranteeing an “A” on that work. The BBB asked one of our college interns to contact the company, asking for a three-page, college-level essay with the topic, “Is it ethical to advertise to children?” The BBB also visited the company’s location and found it had been evicted after nonpayment of rent and a drug possession raid. Our secret shopper only could reach the company by leaving a message. The essay our shopper received was referred to a professor regarded as an expert in the ethics of children’s advertising. The professor graded the paper as a “C” and advised us he was being “generous.” Meanwhile, the BBB contacted the company, inquiring about several of its advertising claims. When we did not receive an adequate response to our inquiry, we issued a press release warning consumers to be wary of the firm. The story was picked up by more than 75 news outlets nationally.