Simon Read: Payday lenders are in denial over targeting advertising at children

 

You might assume that payday lenders are very thick-skinned, especially given their robust defence of their activities before a committee of MPs this week. But it seems there are some activities with which even they don't like to be linked. Specifically, they took umbrage after being accused of "grooming" children.

Payday-loan mouthpiece Russell Hamblin-Boone of the Consumer Finance Association, who was one of those dragged in front of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Tuesday, said: "It is irresponsible and wholly inappropriate to suggest that lenders are deliberately targeting children for any purpose."

The accusations – made by Martin Lewis, the self-styled money-saving expert – were based on research that showed kids under 10 are repeating payday-loan ad slogans and nagging parents to borrow money for toys and games.

He said: "Payday loans are part of the costliest kind of instant-gratification culture. Now these lenders are essentially grooming children to be the next generation of borrowers. The current explosion in the number of people borrowing in this way is nothing compared to how the next generation will act."

In response, Mr Hamblin-Boone pointed out that daytime adverts cost less than prime-time evening adverts.

"In the past lenders may have bought advertising for a package of channels, which, unbeknown to them, included children's TV channels, but this was never an intentional marketing tactic," he said.

Britain's most successful payday lender, Wonga, is also angry at the accusations.

It said: "While of course we want our adverts to be memorable, at no stage in the development of our creative approach have we ever tried to appeal to children."

What is clearly intentional by many payday lenders is to use jaunty jingles and cute characters to make their offerings easily memorable and appear a much-more friendly product than a high-cost loan. It's obviously just a coincidence that these are elements which appeal mainly to children.

Who are the people who really borrow this money?

I had the great pleasure of meeting an Independent reader this week who readily admits she uses payday loans.

Dawn Tolmie, 43, from Doncaster, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. Now recovered she decided it was time to follow her dream of becoming a photographer, specialising in shooting high-profile DJs.

She borrowed £180 from Wonga earlier this year to hire an essential camera lens, repaying £208 12 days later. For Dawn, the high-cost credit company helped her over a short-term cashflow problem.

Is she a typical Wonga customer? The company would like us to believe so. It has just splashed a sizeable chunk of marketing budget on an arty film to – in the words of boss Niall Wass – "give voice to the silent majority".

The film features 12 Wonga customers talking about their lives and, essentially, how they realised their dreams. That's whether it was to become a professional photographer – as in Dawn's case – or simply have enough cash for a picnic on the beach, as was the case in another of the subjects.

The "silent majority" referred to by the Wonga chief are the people he thinks his customers are: normal folk needing a little bit of cash for a short while for a specific purpose; money that they can afford to pay back within a few days.

He said the film was produced to "redress the balance" and then went on to complain about the "misrepresentation of our customers" in the press.

It's true that Wonga and other payday loan firms have come in for a lot of criticism in the press, this newspaper included. Personally I've always accepted that, in some cases, a payday loan can be useful to someone who's a bit short but can easily afford to repay a loan in a few days. But to suggest that payday loans are, therefore, a force for good is completely wrong. The reason why journalists write critical articles about payday lenders is because we encounter lots of people whose lives have been damaged after they've resorted to using high-cost credit.

Take Patricia Forster, whom I wrote about in these pages a month ago. "I went to Wonga to help me get cash to get through but pretty soon my debts escalated," she told me.

Patricia became so worried about her increasing debt woe that she became ill and the stress contributed to her losing her hair through alopecia.

She's not alone. As campaigning MP Stella Creasy said of the Wonga film: "Wonga may be able to find 12 people to say they are happy customers, but I can find 1,200 who are paying the price for borrowing from these legal loan sharks."

Labour leader Ed Miliband said this week that payday lenders are responsible for "a quiet crisis of thousands of families trapped in unpayable debt."

He's absolutely right.

Ban on bookies' roulette machines is timely

On Wednesday Liverpool Council voted unanimously to ban high-speed, high-stake roulette machines found in the city's many betting shops.

The machines are known as fixed-odds betting terminals. They're far removed from the relatively harmless fruit machines you might find in pubs or amusement arcades where stakes are limited to £2 and you normally need to get change from the bar kiosk.

No, these are far more exciting – and insiduous. They allow gamblers to bet with their debit cards for jackpots of up to £500. As the adrenalin rises, gamblers can spend £100 every 20 seconds on these machines. That's more than four times faster than the rate of play in casinos, and people can drain their bank accounts in seconds.

The machines have already been banned in Ireland, but the Government seems to be dithering over a decision to follow suit.

David Cameron should listen to Nick Small, who tabled the Liverpool Council motion.

"Over the past few days I've been inundated with stories of how Liverpool residents have been affected by gambling machines," he said. "People unable to pay their rent and mortgages because of this are turning to loan sharks.

"Those who say this isn't a problem should listen to these stories and see self-regulation isn't working."

Derek Webb, who founded the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, added: "Betting shops are no longer about traditional gambling.They are now driven by high-speed, high-stake, addictive gaming machines with no place on the high street."

Twitter: @simonnread

s.read@independent.co.uk

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