Television psychic predicts viewer gullibility

Miss Cleo has the answers for you. If you’re a regular viewer of late-night television, you’ve probably seen these commercials before. They usually seem to come on during the “Jerry Springer Show” (umm Ö not that I ever watch that show).

The ads feature a personable, colorfully-dressed woman, the cosmos swirling behind her, reading tarot cards to callers; all the while a phone number flashes across the bottom of the screen.

Miss Cleo claims to be a Jamaican shaman and seems to have the answers to your financial, romantic or family problems. She hears your voice, flips over the cards and – boom – knows all the details of your life and what’s in store for you. Where was she when I was choosing a major?

But despite her clairvoyance, Miss Cleo could not see what was in store for herself (or perhaps she just harbors masochistic tendencies). The federal government, as well as several states, have brought lawsuits against the infomercial icon and her parent company, Access Resource Services.

The suits charge ARS with dishonest business practices including fraud, false advertising and an overly aggressive collections department. They also charge “Miss Cleo,” whose real name is Youree Harris, for fraudulent predictions. Yes, even mysterious shamans can be willing pawns to exploitative corporations. Isn’t America great?

Yet, ARS shoulders far more blame for preying upon the gullible. Though the TV advertisement offers the first four minutes toll-free, callers are typically put on hold for that amount of time and then some. Customers were allegedly told they wouldn’t be billed for the time they spent on hold, but the federal indictment states they were charged. If true, then this would indeed be fraud: ARS promised service at one rate and charged another.

This practice would be particularly egregious considering the price for phoning Miss Cleo is nearly $5 per minute. The average caller’s bill for gaining insight into their future is roughly $60! This strikes me as utterly insane; if I wanted to waste $60 on useless information, I’d head to the bookstore.

Miss Cleo, on the other hand, shouldn’t be held liable for fraud. The disclaimer “for entertainment purposes only” is present at the bottom of the screen throughout the commercial. But should this even be necessary?

Even though she claims to be a “Jamaican Soothsayer,” wearing outlandish attire, the foolish party here is not the prophecy-claiming Miss Cleo, but rather those who take her words to heart. In case it wasn’t obvious, Miss Cleo is not a real psychic. The woman can’t even hold her accent constant for an entire commercial.

Miss Cleo shouldn’t be held accountable for people’s stupidity. Those willing to base their decisions on such tripe are responsible for their own choices. Those who believe she has mystical insights into our financial and romantic lives and think they can call and talk to the real Miss Cleo (rather than someone picked up off the street to read a pre-typed script) are responsible for their own ruin.

If Miss Cleo were a Jamaican shaman who could predict the future, she wouldn’t be trapped between bad 1980s reruns and media oppressed talk shows in the middle of the night. She’d be in Vegas running the house – playing cards and betting on sports.

If she were psychic, she’d more likely be locked away in a government think tank, answering the tough questions. Forget the caller’s question of “Where’s my husband?” Instead, it would be the government’s “Where’s Osama bin Laden?”

If Miss Cleo were psychic, there would be no need for the CIA, Homeland Security or a giant national defense budget. We could trust the nation’s safety to the amazing Miss Cleo and her wonderful tarot cards (which you yourself can reportedly now buy in stores, next to Chia Pets, no doubt).

If the customer complaints against the ARS company take issue with its questionable billing and collections, then the lawsuits should be treated with the utmost severity. However, if customer complaints revolve predominantly around the shortcomings of the “psychic” prediction, then blame falls solely on the customer’s own ignorance.

The government cannot afford to be in the business of retrieving money for the foolish, and the public shouldn’t believe everything it sees on television. Novelty acts such as Miss Cleo will always exist on our airwaves, tempting impressionable viewers. It is the responsibility of the public to deem them as entertainment and nothing more. You shouldn’t even need the cards to tell you that.

Chris Schafer’s column usually appears alternate Wednesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to
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