Reality Check

Reality Check

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Campaign Staffers... or 'Real' Actors?

Questions about ethics of Prop 33 ads amid formal complaint

By Sam Brock
|  Tuesday, Oct 9, 2012  |  Updated 11:02 AM PDT
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Prop. 33, a ballot measure dealing with the calculation of insurance rates raises another question: Is the campaign truthful because campaign staffers are the actors used in the ads? Sam Brock reports.

Prop. 33, a ballot measure dealing with the calculation of insurance rates raises another question: Is the campaign truthful because campaign staffers are the actors used in the ads? Sam Brock reports.

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As the race to November edges closer, voters are finding themselves sifting through a sea of advertising campaigns, outreaches and political maneuverings that can be confusing if not downright contradictory.

The barrage of information surrounds not just the contests for political office, but also the dozens of statewide and local ballot initiatives.

While a few measures have garnered most of the attention- abolishing the death penalty and raising taxes to pay for education, for example- it’s another proposition that’s captured the attention of NBC Bay Area, as it speaks to the very core of fairness and transparency in advertising.

Proposition 33, a ballot measure funded almost exclusively by car insurance magnate George Joseph, seeks to add a new criteria to calculating insurance rates: coverage history.

Proponents of the measure argue drivers could shop their history around, thereby achieving lower rates and pushing costs down. Under current law, insurance companies can only offer ‘loyalty discounts’ to customers already in their system, not new clients.

Opponents, conversely, worry that a large swath of drivers without insurance for a variety of reasons, from city dwellers who rely on public transit to students who don’t have a car, will see their rates rise precipitously.

Both sides present starkly different outcomes for Prop 33, one reason why Daniel Palay, whose organization Consumer Watchdog is one of the measure’s most vocal opponents, calls the advertising campaign “untruthful” and potentially in violation of state law.

Palay takes issue with the fact that several of the purported real drivers, and real college students appearing in the Prop 33 ads are actually employees of the campaign’s consultant, Marketplace Communications. Furthermore, Palay objects to the employees appearing without any disclosure.

“From what we found online and on the Marketplace Communications web site and Facebook, the actors are employees of the public relations firm hired to run the campaign,” Palay said.

“And not only hired, but received more than $500,000 in the last seven or eight months to run this campaign,” he added.

Consumer Watchdog has filed a formal complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission, of FPPC, although state law stipulates that actors must disclose their identity only when they receive a payment of $5,000 or more for their services.

“They do work here at Marketplace Communications, and yes we did use them for the campaign commercials,” responded Rachel Hooper, spokesperson for the company. “They were not paid for that. They volunteered their services, and they volunteered their time.”

Gary Winuk, who runs the Enforcement Division for the FPPC, declined to comment on the particulars of the complaint, but did explain to NBC Bay Area the intent behind the law.                   

“It’s about having a paid spokesperson,” Winuk said. “So if you’re a doctor, or a celebrity, or someone with some credibility on a particular issue but you’re getting paid for your opinion, then the public has a right to have knowledge of it.”

Hooper told NBC Bay Area that in addition to not receiving compensation, both employees who took part in the campaign firmly believe in the value of Prop 33.

When asked if there might be an ethical boundary crossed by using campaign employees in this manner, Hooper responded, “no, I think personally this is Consumer Watchdog using a campaign tactic they like to use- they like to play dirty and pull everything out.”

“We still think it’s disingenuous,” Palay said. “If ‘real’ consumers supported this they would have real consumers. They would have real drivers.”

In the complaint filed with the FPPC, Consumer Watchdog acknowledged that “we do not know how much either woman made from her employment on the campaign.”

Rather, the group is arguing that the two actors are ‘agents’ of a company that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote a particular message.

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