Marketplace on Reader's Digest's Sweepstakes

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


Complaint about Marketplace's program about the Sweepstakes component of Reader's Digest's marketing efforts, from Annie Péloquin, Public Relations Director, Reader's Digest Canadian Operations

You wrote originally in February, 2009, to complain about a segment of the CBC Current Affairs program “Marketplace.” The program segment concerned the Sweepstakes component of Reader's Digest's marketing efforts.

You had a number of concerns:

  • that the program did not “fully (disclose) the intended purpose and context” for a requested interview;
  • that the program arrived unannounced at Reader's Digest headquarters “contravening their own code of ethics.” And used a “gimmick” in the form of a giant replica of a cheque
  • that the title of the program, How not to win $500,000, deliberately misled viewers into believing that the Sweepstakes is not legitimate and that there are no winners;
  • that the program focused on one “unusual” case, “completely ignoring the fact that once a family member had alerted Reader's Digest, the company immediately ceased further promotion to this customer” and “issued a sizeable refund…”;
  • that a comment from the daughter of a customer (“I would expect this from a con artist, but here it is the Reader's Digest, not a bunch of criminals working offshore. From Readers' Digest I expected better.”) would bias CBC viewers' perception;
  • that a note from the program's producer to a Seniors group showed that “her goal was simply to portray the company as one that harasses the elderly.” And that it showed that Marketplace went to “great lengths” to find elderly customers with complaints. “Again,” you wrote, “they found only one”;
  • that the use of the Executive Producer's dog as a subscriber showed that the Marketplace team's “sole intent (was) to humiliate and ridicule Reader's Digest.” You said that “they could easily have investigated using the real name of a person”;
  • that the program “staged mail delivery, without clarifying that it was a re-enactment”;
  • that the program repeatedly showed a document with small fonts…deliberately ignoring all other accompanying documents such as the Yes and No envelopes”;
  • that the program confused American and Canadian policies and that it “even showed a picture of a room filled with products without mentioning that the picture was from the US”;
  • that the program failed to mention that the class action lawsuit had not been certified;
  • that the narration “left the deliberate impression that the Canadian Government gives two million dollars to Reader's Digest specifically to promote the Sweepstakes, intentionally disregarding that it comes from a long-established fund available to most Canadian consumer magazines. It is simply untrue to say that we use subsidies to pay for our promotions and Sweepstakes”;
  • that the program used an expert who “did not display an understanding of Canadian sweepstakes regulations and left viewers confused”;
  • and that in promoting “investigative Journalism” the program claims to be “Canada's most-watched consumer show.” This, you say, is untrue as two shows in Quebec each have more viewers.

You wrote that the program had failed to conduct true “Investigative Journalism” and used gimmicks and satire. You concluded by saying that “maybe part of the problem is that (the program) does not understand an information program's main purpose is the serious examination of important questions…not to make your personal point in an entertaining way on National Television.”

I trust this is a fair summary of your main concerns.

The program responded saying:

  • that “our producers repeatedly provided Reader's Digest with clear and detailed information about the nature of the story they were preparing”; and that representatives of the magazine declined to be interviewed;
  • that the producers had the approval of senior journalistic management, per policy, for the attempt to interview a spokesperson at the headquarters of Reader's Digest;
  • that the title reflected the fact that buying merchandise was not the way to win the Sweepstakes;
  • that the segment attempted to reflect Readers's Digest's position as contained in written material submitted to the producers, including the statement “now you don't actually have to buy to win and Reader's Digest does award prizes” and that they
    subsequently stated that Reader's Digest “insists it's all spelled out in their rules: You don't have to buy to win a real cheque.”;
  • that the expert, Douglas Walsh, Chief of the Consumer Protection Division in the Attorney General's Office in Washington State, clarified the differences between regulations in the U.S. and Canada, offering insight from the U.S. experience as context for the segment. The producers also point out that the picture of products to which you alluded actually comes during the segment with Mr. Walsh when he is talking about the U.S. experience;
  • that it is common practice to use one person as representative of a larger group. The producers say that they had a number of similar examples epitomized by the one story that was used. A number of them said that they had difficulty in reading the rules, as did the subject;
  • that the program noted that the subject's daughter “got some money back, but she's still fighting for a full refund.” The producers also noted that this subject could have been pursued further had they had the opportunity of an interview;
  • that the person who said she expected better of Reader's Digest was entitled to her own view and that, in any event, she showed her underlying respect for the magazine;
  • that the notes to Seniors facilities were not efforts to “drum up a story,” but an effort to confirm information they had already received;
  • that using a dog, rather than a person, was an attempt to insure that there would be no previous history of mail delivery, insuring the clarity of the test;
  • that without the context of the rules themselves, and the alleged difficulty in reading them, the “Yes” and “No” envelopes were irrelevant. And that not all Sweepstakes mailings come with “Yes” and “No” envelopes. The ease of reading the rules is one of the key elements in the U.S. experience;
  • that it was a matter of “fact” that a class-action suit had been filed. They did not say whether or not it had been “certified”;
  • that the program clearly stated that the subsidy of $2 million a year was “to help cover the cost of mailing the magazine.” It continued to say “…but it also helps this ‘most trusted magazine' push their products to any subscriber who signs up.”

We should begin with a brief review of some basic principles and some reflection of those principles as applied to investigative programs. Underlying all CBC journalism are these three principles:

The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

In addition, there is another policy that may be pertinent to part of this complaint:

Interview Without Consent
In most cases people are willing to be interviewed for broadcast. Public figures such as politicians know that they will frequently be questioned by the media, even though at times they might prefer not to be. Sometimes people who are not public figures wish to decline an interview. For people who are not public figures, this desire should be respected.

The exceptions to this practice might occur, particularly with investigative pieces, when a subject who is crucial to a story will not agree to be interviewed. Every effort should be made to persuade the person to participate. If such repeated efforts at persuasion are unsuccessful, it may as a last resort be necessary to confront and record the subject without his or her consent. This technique is sometimes referred to as a “doorstep” interview. It should only be done when it is essential to an important story, and never simply for aesthetic effect.

From these excerpts we can see that there is an obligation on the part of the journalist to get the facts right, assemble them in a fair manner, give interested parties an opportunity to comment and, if conclusions are drawn, ensure that they are based on fact.I watched the program several times in order to try to bring multiple perspectives to the issue: as a representative of the viewing public (what would a regular member of the audience see?) and as a “representative” of CBC's Journalistic policies (what would a professional journalist see?). There are a couple of issues that can be dealt with fairly quickly:

  • Having viewed the correspondence between Marketplace and Reader's Digest it seems clear that Marketplace followed policy and standard journalistic practice in pursuing an interview. The subject is free to decline the opportunity of an interview and the journalist may, appropriately, refuse to share questions in advance. It is common practice and good policy that subject areas might be highlighted, but journalists should avoid being tied to a precise list of questions.
  • A reasonable viewer would not find any “confusion” between the U.S. and Canadian experiences. The presence of Mr. Walsh was clearly to illustrate the differences in policy between the two countries on the subject. He was clearly identified and talked about his experience with U.S. policy. Another note: the picture of U.S. products complained about was contained within the segment discussing the U.S. experience. There does not appear to be an attempt to mislead anyone.
  • Based on a review of the program's correspondence--and the comments after the broadcast--it seems clear that Mr. Quantz is not the only person who has had difficulty with the Sweepstakes rules and process. Of course, you are correct, as the program noted, that prizes are awarded, but the point of the program is that there are some people who may not understand the subtleties of the process. The program did not claim that they represent a large bloc of people, but did point to experience in a very similar jurisdiction (the U.S.) where the problem was thought to be significant enough to warrant action.
  • The program clearly stated the purpose of the Canadian government subsidy program (“to help cover the cost of mailing the magazine...”). Its follow-on observation that the magazines contain material promoting the Sweepstakes is also factually correct.

There are some features of the program that require some further discussion.

The use of the producer's dog caught my eye at first glance as potentially being a “gimmick” of limited journalistic purpose. However, in contemplating the necessity of having a recipient who has no history of mail delivery, one sees the problem. I suppose they could have used a fictitious name, but there is nothing in policy that would prevent the program from using Yoda the dog. There is a requirement to be fair--and the test was--but not a requirement to be boring.

That being said, I must confess that I share some unease with some of the technical tropes that have become commonplace in North American current affairs programming. Many of them--quick “cuts,” music, multiple camera angles, re-creations--have, in some programming, displaced solid journalism in seeking, one presumes, younger audiences. The CBC has, for a long time, resisted that trend, attempting to maintain the journalistic standard while adopting some of the common (some might say very common) techniques of current fashion.

For the CBC, the issue becomes whether any of the techniques lead to a violation of our basic principles--fairness, balance, accuracy. While I have argued that using Yoda was an appropriate method of achieving a “clean” history, I find that arriving at Reader's Digest headquarters with a gigantic cheque had no real journalistic purpose, but to try to embarrass Reader's Digest for its refusal to have a senior official speak on camera. While an interview would have been the best option for all concerned, particularly for people running an enterprise related to journalism, the organization was free to refuse. I find that this segment is the equivalent of an “empty chair” interview, prohibited by policy. There is nothing wrong with asking for an interview, even on-camera, but it is inappropriate to overemphasize a refusal to participate. A program like Marketplace, known for its rigour and high values, has no need to indulge in stunts to make its valid journalistic points. Since the program had Reader's Digest's views on paper, the visit to the headquarters appeared to be for “aesthetic” reasons, rather than for sound, journalistic reasons.

However, the substance of the Marketplace segment appears to stand up well against the demands of policy. The title of the program was not misleading (How not to win $500,000); it highlighted that buying merchandise was not the path to winning.The main subject of the piece was not alone in his confusion and the note that the producers sent to seniors centres and other locations was a perfectly valid method of testing a journalistic hypothesis.

When it appeared that there were a number of cases involving people who did not understand the rules, it was logical and appropriate to find out what other jurisdictions might be doing. It is clarifying, not confusing, to see the evolution of rules applying to a parallel company in a similar situation.

As for the relative audience claims, since it was not part of the substance of the piece I will not deal with it except to note that programs of journalism should be wary of adopting the language of marketers in promoting their programs. That being said, it appears to be common practice for various English language broadcasters to reference their audiences in terms of “Canada” as opposed to “le Canada.”


Although I find the segment at the headquarters of Reader's Digest to be the equivalent of an “empty chair” interview, the substance of the Marketplace segment was a valid and substantial examination of the Sweepstakes issue. I would recommend that, before re- use, the segment be re-edited to conform to policy.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman