Saturday, January 10, 2009

Universal Media Syndicate -- Half-Truths, Puffery and Outright Lies

Amish heater adIf it seems like you're seeing more and more newspaper ads that pretend to be news stories, you're not imagining things.

The ads are created by a business called Universal Media Syndicate, which specializes in buying up "remnant advertising" space from newspapers. Basically, they sign a contract with the papers saying they'll buy any quarter-, half- or full-page ad spaces at rock-bottom prices. They're the advertiser of last resort.

How does it work?

The papers' ad departments have UMS's insertion orders on hand along with advertising art for a range of questionable products, from expensive space heaters to the Universal Health Card to the product I saw in yesterday's Pioneer Press, an over-the-counter joint medication called Trigosamine.

All the ads look like newspaper articles, but beyond that, there are commonalities in the design approach and details among them. For instance, the Universal Health Card, Amish Heater and Trigosamine ads all set their photo cutlines in a not-too-common sans serif face, with a gray square bullet at the beginning of the line, followed by bold capital letters as a lead-in to the caption. (In fact, the bottom of the Amish heater ad and the Universal Health Card ad is identical except the specific photos used and the wording of the cutlines. Click on the image for an enlarged version.)

Comparison of the photo panels at the bottom of the Amish heater ad and the Universal Health Card ad
All use Helvetica Condensed Bold or Extrabold for the headline. All have hairline rules around the photos and light gray sidebar boxes.

The Triogsamine and Amish heater ads purposely reinforce their similarity to news design by including an actual byline: "BY G.W. NAPIER, Universal Media Syndicate" for Trigosamine and "BY MARK WOODS, Universal Media Syndicate" for the Amish heaters. In a context where readers may be familiar with Universal Press Syndicate (distributor of comic strips like For Better or For Worse and Garfield and numerous feature columns like Dear Abby) and United Press International (long-time competitor with the Associated Press), the use of a name like Universal Media Syndicate is clearly intended to borrow credibility the ads don't deserve.

The ads share a common set-up:

  1. There's a product with a startling claim (access to health care, joint pain relief, cheap winter heat).
  2. It's only available for a limited time, sometimes in limited quantity.
  3. A long passage of text is included, written in a pseudo-journalistic style, with quotes attributed to people with authoritative-sounding titles.
  4. There are sidebar boxes with diagrams and details that bolster credibility.
  5. Multiple photos are used with cutlines that repeat key points from the body copy, since many readers won't read all that type.
  6. The reader is called to action by use of an 800 number, and the ad is assigned a "claim code" that the caller is supposed to use. This reinforces the implied limited availability of the product.
Who are these UMS people?

Universal Media Syndicate is located in Canton, Ohio, near the Akron-Canton Airport. And it's not just the creator of these ads, it's actually part of a larger company that is the distributor of the products as well: Arthur Middleton Capital Holdings, which is owned by a guy named Rodney Napier.

Portrait of the real Arthur MiddletonOn its website, Arthur Middleton says that its mission is "to have pride, purpose, profit & growth because we will exceed our customer's expectations." It's named for one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who probably wishes he could sue for defamation of character.

In addition to Universal Media Syndicate, the Arthur Middleton site lists several other companies as subsidiaries: HeatSurge (makers of the Amish heaters), PatentHealth (creator of Trigosamine), World Reserve Monetary Exchange, Republic Telcom Worldwide, and Midwest Model Management.

World Reserve Monetary Exchange -- with its pseudo-governmental name -- markets "collectible" coins and uncut sheets of U.S. currency at higher than market rates. According to, WRME consistently sells currency products that are available at half the cost. (As an incentive in one ad, they offered to include "a cross made with grains of sacred sand from Christ's tomb." !)

Republic Telcom employs several hundred people in call centers to support all of the Arthur Middleton products. Midwest Model Management appears to be what its name implies, but I'll bet part of their work is to provide models for all those photos in the UMS ads. (These guys are all about vertical integration; why pay somebody else when you can do it yourself?)

How does the Universal Health Card fit into this picture? According to the Independent newspaper (Massillon, Ohio) in a story back in September 2008, Universal Health Card was opening a call center in a former Republic Steel building, taking advantage of a $2.1 million Job Tax Credit from the state. The tax credit had originally been arranged for Arthur Middleton's PatentHealth subsidiary, but was to be used by UHC, "a company associated with [PatentHealth's] parent-owner, Rodney Napier." According to the Independent, Napier helped a local auto dealer, Doug Waikem, start UHC, and "although not listed on [Arthur Middleton's] web site, Waikem's Universal Health Card LLC is part of Arthur Middleton."

The $2.1 million tax credit from the state was given to create 500 jobs in the economically distressed area, south of Cleveland. In July 2008, the Independent also reported on a different expansion of Arthur Middleton's business interests in Jackson Township near Akron, this time netting a 45 percent tax credit.

It's pathetic that the mayor of Canton and the lieutenant governor of Ohio have fallen all over themselves to praise Napier's companies as they expand into new locations. Do they have any idea what kinds of jobs Napier is creating, what types of products they're helping to unleash on an unsuspecting public?

In addition to his for-profit businesses, Napier is behind a nonprofit called the Granted Wish Foundation, located in the same building as Arthur Middleton, which lists all the Arthur Middleton companies as corporate sponsors. If I were the Ohio attorney general or even the IRS, I'd be interested in looking into just how nonprofit that foundation is.

Map showing locations of four Napier businesses around Canton, Ohio

Walking the line between puffery and outright lies

When does puffery turn into lies?

As I said in my first post on the Universal Health Card, the list of providers who accept the card is at a minimum hard to verify and most likely highly exaggerated or even partially fabricated (based on news and Better Business Bureau stories from around the country, compiled in my second post).

The Amish heaters perform as promised (they make heat), but are priced higher than comparable heaters that are widely available, and won't save you money on your overall heating bill as promised -- just on your gas bill, since you'll be paying for electricity instead of gas. (See Karen Youso's column from the Star Tribune analyzing both the cost of running the Amish heater and the cost of purchasing one vs. other options.)

The Trigosamine ad claims that there is a double-blind, placebo-controlled study that found "significant" positive benefit from its mixture of three drugs (the familiar glucosamine sulfate and two others). (As has been recently reported, the effectiveness of glucosamine is being questioned.) Of course, the ad doesn't give an actual citation to the research. Looking on the Trigosamine website, I found the title of the research, and then via Google found a specific reference to it at (page 119 of the lengthy document, which is not actually a medical source, but rather an analysis of key trends in "nutraceutical" food and drinks). It reports that the study included just 20 patients, and that there was a statistically significant improvement in pain measurement when they were given one of the three ingredients listed as part of Trigosamine. However, if half the group of 20 was assigned to placebo and half the drug, that means only 10 people are in each experimental group... can you even compute statistical significance from a group that size?

But even if it does have statistically significant effects, the fact remains that Trigosamine is not the only product that includes this ingredient. It is readily available and not subject to limited quantities or timeframes, and can probably be had for a better price (or at least one that doesn't include shipping and handling) at your local drugstore.

In general, all the UMS ads belong to the Chicken Little school of advertising, warning you that there's only a short time to get the product or service. This is patently untrue, since Napier's hundreds of call center employees are eagerly waiting to talk to anyone who calls, any time. The Trigosamine ad, for instance, said "we can only allow the phone lines to be open for 72 hours because we have to be able to get it to people in other parts of the country." This is known as the "scarcity effect" and while it's one of the oldest tricks in the book, the UMS ads come up with a new twist based on time, rather than quantity.

Aside from being untrue, it's also just plain silly, given that these ads are waiting to run whenever the newspapers have trouble filling space -- so UMS has no idea until the last minute that an ad will run in any given market.

As the newspapers get more desperate for ad revenue, we'll see more and more of these ads, I'm afraid. I'd like to think that most people are too smart to fall for these appeals, but the growth of Rodney Napier's companies over the past few years makes it clear that quite a number are willing to fork over their cash, based on the ads' promises.

Ironically, Napier is looking to hire an attorney as Senior Corporate Counsel for Arthur Middleton Capital Holding. The notice on the website says the job requires "5+ years experience working for a State or Federal government agency in the area of consumer protection" (emphasis added).

From what I can tell, Rodney Napier never met a consumer protection law he couldn't skirt.


NPR recently ran a story on the increased number of infomercials during prime television hours, and it's happening for the same reason -- with the economic downturn and auto industry troubles, particularly, remnant advertising agencies are buying up TV time at low prices so they can sell products no one really needs (PedEgg, Snuggies and ShamWow) or that don't work at all (HeadOn).


justinph said...

That is fascinating. Those Amish Fireplace ads drove me particularly crazy, mostly due to the horrible, horrible photoshop job. Good to know why they appear so frequently.

elena said...

Thanks, DN3, for taking the time to get to the bottom of this and communicate it to the rest of us. You are an excellent consumer advocate and media sleuth.

Space Corn said...

Nice job. I contacted the Pioneer Press yesterday about the Universal Media Syndicate ad for a "free safe" with the purchase of $300 in coins for $2000.

I contacted the Pioneer Press who put me in contact with its advertising person. She told me that she was concerned that I thought the ads were a scam. She told me that no one else had ever complained about them.

I think we need to complain more. These ads are clearly out to take advantage of those who can least afford top be taken advantage of.

Keep up the good work.

KatPants said...

Thank you for doing all this research. I live in Canton and am well aware of this guy! He is very snake like and underhanded. He purchased the FYE building when they went out of business and offered jobs to it's employees working in the call center. My mom was one of the ones that lost her job, but she wouldn't work for him because you have to lie to people. I know for a fact his call centers are slammed with complaints about his shady products.

Unknown said...

Dear Daughter Number Three,
I found a few discrepencies with your article, in which you talked very assumptively about a company called Arthur Middleton Capital Holdings. I think that during your "research," you may have missed a few things.

FACT: All of the Universal Media ads are completely honest, regarding pricing and quality. (such as the AMISH MADE fireplace mantels.)Otherwise, it would be kind of you to inform me how they are constantly legally printed, and constantly do business with thousands of satisfied customers.

FACT: There is no current law prohibiting a parent company to own several daughter companies. In fact, it is not even considered shady or underhanded in the least.

FACT: Located in the same Arthur Middleton building that you so avidly slammed, there is a customer service dapartment that handles all questions and concerns of customers.

FACT: Arthur Middleton has created jobs in a time where many other companies are laying off.

Maybe next time you do a "study," you should read the whole ad.

Daughter Number Three said...

Dear Gee,

I did not say it is illegal or even unethical for a parent company to have "daughter" companies. I was just pointing out that UMS is not an objective third party reporting on the products for sale in the ads.

I am well aware that Arthur Middleton has created jobs, which I assume are desperately needed in the Canton area. In my opinion, it is sad that people have to work for a company that uses ads that are designed to deceive less media-savvy readers into thinking they are newspaper articles, and that sometimes list product prices in unclear ways.


mad2010 said...


E Car Man said...

Looks like an old fashioned case of jealousy to me. I'll bet that if either of you paid for the ads then Rodney Napier would probably let you write his ads. Quit crying and get a life! Your government lies every day and we call it politics. This guy gives people hope and something interesting to spend their money on and you discount it as a scam. Booh hooooo!

Unknown said...

Hi, I just saw an ad for a Vertical Indoor Salad Garden. It looked like an awesome thing to have. I googled Universal Media Syndicate and your site popped up. Thank you for the heads up.

Unknown said...

They posted an ad in the San Jose Mercury News, "Relish" insert today 10/7/2010, offering "Surplus armored safes filled w/ 221 uncirculated government coins". The shipping cost is $298. The ad is exactly as described w/ call in time to start 8:00am today, (but no date). They have separate claim codes for the 2080 available "free safes full of money" before and after the 7 day deadline.

Suprimeaux said...

I actually dated Rodney Napier for a brief time, he's certainly no snake - but he has the same quirks anyone who's built themselves a gilded cage holds. He has no grasp on popular opinion nor the ways of markets. I tried to get him to sell Miami real estate before the bubble burst - but he wouldn't hear of it, although he really could afford to lose 50% any how. Overall, he deserves not your scorn, but your compassion. He makes choices and takes opportunities on a scale most of us probably never will reach (like when he told me President Bush setup a special deal for those uncut money sheets and gold coins) - he uses the same brain you have in your head to do it, so whether he sells shoddy merchandise or not - he's still just a man, not a monster.

Unknown said...

I can appreciate that he is human, but it's despicable when a someone can lie to othes to make more money. I work with people who do deceitful things all the time for their own personal gain, and some have tried to convince me to do the same. I refuse to do it even if I need money more than the people around me because it is just dishonest and I have integrity. People, especially someone as rich as Napier who regularly travels wherever in his untrackable Beechjet, are nothing but snakes to take take advantage of people in such a way. Yeah, we're all human, but we don't all CHOOSE to be dishonest at the expense of others.

Unknown said...

I need your help on this matter.. Having some trouble with these people and I need some advice.. can you please contact me @

Thank you in advance

Unknown said...

I am working at this company now and I will say that they are doing alot of underhanded things. Supervisors, managers, human resource are all corrupt and the majority of the poor employees are on medications for high stress. what they endure at the company under these people is unreal. I don't know if Mr.Napier even knows how his employees are treated. It is a very hostile environment and I would never recommend anyone to put an application in to work there. It starts out okay and then 'wham!" your hit with the reality of Nazi camp. It is truly a prison with no say. I don't know how much more I can take. The bullying in unreal.