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Reverse mortgages lose a pitchman

Is it a good idea to use trusted Hollywood stars like Peter Graves and Dennis Hopper to pitch financial products to seniors?

By Karen Datko Mar 19, 2010 2:01PM

This post comes from Marilyn Lewis of MSN Money.


Peter Graves, the cool, smooth Hollywood star who aged handsomely before audiences, started out playing cowboys in his youth, progressed to the role of Jim Phelps, spy leader in TV’s “Mission: Impossible” in the 1960s and ’70s, and he played a pedophile pilot in the movie “Airplane” (“Joey, did you ever hang around a gymnasium?” was a famous line). A delightful guy by all accounts, Graves died a few days ago at age 83. (Brian Williams recaps his career.)


His last role was peddling reverse mortgages in TV commercials for American Advisors Group. As a pitchman, he joined a legion of aging or elderly stars, including Leslie Nielsen, for Dutchtone; Charlton Heston, for Bud Light; and James Garner, for Polaroid.


The list goes on: Patrick Stewart and Julie Walters flog Brain Training for Nintendo DS, Nancy Walker (“Rhoda” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) spent 20 years pitching paper towels for Bounty (“the quicker picker upper”), Gene Hackman did voiceovers for Lowe’s, and Morgan Freeman has pitched just about everything from (recently) Visa to Listerine, Black & Long cigarettes and Polaroid cameras.


So, given this long tradition, how come it’s the gray-haired stars hawking financial services that get under my skin? Is it the brazen hypocrisy, as with Dennis Hopper -- one of the original bad-boy anti-establishmentarian icons who’s now plugging retirement plans for Ameriprise (“Dreams don’t retire”)? Likewise with Samuel L. Jackson, ranting “Money isn’t evil; love of money is evil” as pitchman for Barclays Bank?


Yeah. Sure. That’s annoying. But what else is new?


Even the unctuous and much-spoofed Wilford Brimley commercials don’t bug me. He pitches diabetes supplies for Liberty Medical with his usual folksy sincerity. But he’s selling diabetes supplies which, to my knowledge, are unlikely to drive elders into financial ruin.

And that’s my problem with celebrities like Hopper, Graves, Jackson, Garner (for Financial Freedom reverse mortgages) and Robert Wagner (pitching reverse mortgages for Senior Lending Network). They’re taking care of their own retirements by asking older folks to risk their financial stability. These are not paper towels or cat food these celebrities are hawking. Poorly chosen credit cards and reverse mortgages can lay waste to a retired person’s limited income.

You could argue that TV viewers weren’t born yesterday, that we regard stars with the same skepticism as we do any other TV hucksters, and we understand that a celebrity doesn't necessarily use or stand behind the product he’s endorsing.


But plenty other stars (Bono, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, for example) seem to accept that audiences do give them unusual trust, and they try using it responsibly, trading on their credibility to advocate for charities and international aid projects.


We've known these older actors for so many years that they're almost like family. As Reverse Mortgage Loan Blog puts it (in an old re-post originally from the Philadelphia Inquirer):

Will you be more willing to look into a reverse mortgage if Garner (“The Rockford Files”) or Wagner (“Hart to Hart”) suggests it than you would if it were being pitched by Billy Mays (OrangeGlow!) or, shudder, Ty Pennington (Mr. Extreme Home Makeover himself)?

That’s the hope.


What’s your take on this? Do they -- and the companies that pay them and grow richer with their help -- have a responsibility to refrain from preying on the special trust that we -- rightly or wrongly -- give celebrities?


Related reading:

The Oracle of … rock and roll?

Reverse mortgages: A wise idea?

A mortgage that pays you? Think twice

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