Imagine our surprise last week when we received an email, which our system boldly labeled as SPAM, with the subject line: "Get fit this year with a FREE Galena Bodycraft Home Gym!"
Finger poised over the delete button as we did the spam-delete-quick-step, we hesitated a moment when our eye caught the name Bodycraft, especially with the sender named only as "Free Home Gym." We had to open the email.
Yes, there it was -- a screen-size picture of the popular Galena gym, rated well in consumer publications since it has been sold, with the word FREE in a large font flashing in front of us. Across the top was the URL, ProductTestPanel.com, with the tagline, "presented by Consumer Research Corporation." Then we got to the small print:
"This offer is sponsored exclusively by ProductTestPanel.com and is subject to terms and conditionsâ€¦. Recreation Supply Inc. has not endorsed this promotion, nor is it affiliated or connected with this promotion in any way. Bodycraft is a trademark of Recreation Supply Inc. with all rights reserved worldwide. This email was sent by an affiliate of ProductTestPanel.com. AdDrive.com is the exclusive affiliate network for ProductTestPanel offers.â€¦"
Naturally, we were intrigued. Alan Gore of Bodycraft verified the company had heard from one of its retailers a few months ago about a similar email floating around, but the company doing the sendings hadn't come to Bodycraft and the company had nothing to do with the email. Gore told SNEWSÂ® they figured the email group had just bought a gym somewhere and was going to give it away. At that time, they discussed the email and any possible repercussions.
"I just let it go," Gore said. "We couldn't think of a negative. It's exposure."
But was it exposure? Was it negative? Would you want your product in spam emails annoying consumers all over the country?
Who are ProductTestPanel and CRC?
SNEWSÂ® couldn't help but wonder who the ProductTestPanel and the Consumer Research Corporation were, so we started digging. And the results weren't so pretty. Although the group is likely not doing anything illegal, what it is doing is what most email marketing does -- offers a "free lunch" when you'll likely never get the lunch part and it certainly won't be free if you did.
A Google search for Consumer Research Corp. came up with a company in Minnesota, but the contact information said very firmly, in bold print and all caps, that it had "absolutely no affiliation or association with ProductTestPanel.com." We talked to its owner, David Frey, who has been doing market research with that company name for more than two decades. Suddenly, the middle of last summer, he started getting angry calls and emails from the public demanding he stop sending the emails, with some asking about their gifts. Â
"I have a file full of emails," he said. "I'm just not happy about it."
One day, he himself got 21 "spam" emails -- excuse us, marketing emails -- from the group, although the contacts and emails have slowed a bit, he said.
"I've had to deal with it for months, and there's nothing you can do," he added.
SNEWSÂ® started checking URL and business records. Turns out the real ProductTestPanel (www.producttestpanel.com) is based in Columbia, S.C., and actually has either several business or several names all with the same executives, address, websites and telephone number. They include the ProductTestPanel, but also include CRC, although the phone is answered "Subscriber Base" and an administrative contact email is listed as SubscriberBaseHoldings@yahoo.com. An alleged support website, www.myhelpsupport.com comes up blank. The URL, ConsumerResearchCorporation.com, directs you to ProductTestPanel.com, which is in this case not "presented" by CRC anymore, according to the website, but "sponsored" by CRC. And if you look further, you find that ProductTestPanel becomes a "division" of CRC.
Several calls by SNEWSÂ® to three different executives at the company and an attempt to find a real person at the contact phone number to find out some company background and why they used a home gym as a come-on were futile. Did we expect anything else?
David Frey was right about the timing: The URLs were registered between June 28-29, 2004. A listing with the South Carolina Better Business Bureau, which calls the nature of the business "online marketing," stated it had processed 78 complaints since the company began in August 2004 on advertising, sales, delivery and customer service issues. Some were noted as resolved; the others have a note that the company made a "good faith effort" to resolve. Â
What do ProductTestPanel and CRC actually do?
Online marketing, the BBB says. But let's read the website fine print again. It says all you have to do is use a product, such as a camcorder, TV or we guess a home gym, give the CRC your feedback, and you get it for free. Sounds like a great free lunch. But we know the TANSTAAFL principle (economic speak for "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch").
That got Gore at Bodycraft a little more concerned about his company name being a part: "We aren't doing the spam," he said, "and hopefully everybody sees that."
Do folks ever get the free stuff?
Do users ever get the free products? Since we couldn't reach the company to ask that -- not as if executives would tell us, but stillâ€¦ -- we can't say for sure. But digging through the FAQ, the website fine print, and perusing a few scam-alert websites, we are doubtful. A user has to jump through a lot of hoops to get anything. Forget about just getting sent a product to use, review it and keep it. You have to "activate" a certain number of "offers" from "sponsors," all within 90 days. This means laying out money.
The website states, "In cases of a financial offer such as a credit card, the card must be activated by making a purchase, balance transfer or cash advance in order for the offer to be considered 'completed,' and the user must remain a card holder for at least 60 days. For paid retail offers you must accept the item/service and pay in full. Additional terms and conditions may apply to participation in select marketing offers."
In a FAQ, they get around the incentive gift receipt with this: "As a member you are guaranteed to be selected to test at least three products in your first 90 days of membership." Note the absence of the word "receive" and the replacement by the word "test."
Wrote one person on a scam-alert website: "It turns out the real cockroach is the company: Consumer Research Corporation. Because, you see, the 'free offer' is not, technically-speaking free. Or maybe the real problem is that it's only 'technically-speaking' freeâ€¦. I was asked to enter my zip code to see if they were 'recruiting' in my area. Imagine my amazement when I discovered they wereâ€¦.
"It's 'technically' free, I'm sure. No doubt they'll probably really give you the computer if you get all your points. But, somehow, giving me 90 days to buy six things I probably don't need takes the joy out of it for me."
After Bodycraft's Gore heard the summary of our investigation, his reaction was a little different.
"We don't want to be part of a scam," he said. "We don't want anything negative."
SNEWSÂ® View: With spam being a part of daily living these days -- what a pity -- the Bodycraft name won't likely be tainted by this -- at least not too badly -- although there may be a few pissed-off consumers. What we found most intriguing was that a company like this would think to offer a home gym, i.e., a fitness product, for such a come-on. Perhaps that's because its target audience is the teen and 20- to 30-something guys who have the time to fiddle around on their computers and think about working out to attract babes. We bet the company never even had a home gym to give away, but rather just found what it thought might be an attractive offer. Remember, TANSTAAFL.