Credit insights from the CFA, now 50 years-old

Date: October 17, 2018

Jack Gillis is executive director of the Consumer Federation of

America, where he previously served as director of public affairs since

1983. In


addition, he is an advocate of issues relating to auto safety, auto

buying, fuel efficiency, and consumer protection. The author of 74

consumer-education books, he’s served as contributing consumer

correspondent for NBC’s The Today Show, and as contributing editor and

columnist for both Good Housekeeping and Child Magazine. Gillis was

cited by the National Press Club as “one of the best in consumer

journalism.” He has testified before both the Senate and the House at

the invitation of Republicans and Democrats, and is a former adjunct

professor at George Washington University, where he taught in the

Graduate School of Government and Business Administration.

1) The CFA recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary. What do you think has changed the most in this 50-year span in the consumer advocacy realm?

The three biggest changes relate to the environment in which we operate: the press, Congress and advocacy tools.

Regarding the press, historically, media outlets had a variety of consumer reporters with an expertise in various food, safety, and financial issues. Today, there are very few specialized consumer reporters, and news organizations have become so thinly staffed that it is difficult to find a reporter with particular expertise on the wide variety of consumer issues in CFA’s portfolio. As such, major stories go unreported, corporate advertising is considered when addressing certain issues, and educating reporters on a particular issue is a challenge because they are often responsible for covering an impossibly wide variety of issues. As a result, CFA invests a tremendous amount of effort in creatively reaching out to, and educating the media.

On the congressional front, the well-established divide between the political parties and associated unwillingness to compromise have created a nearly impossible environment to pursue consumer protection issues. In the past, because both left- and right-leaning politicians were also consumers, it was often possible to reach compromise solutions to consumer issues. Today, the hostility between the parties has made compromising on consumer protection issues nearly impossible.

The good news is that advocates have taken to social media to communicate with the public and use those tools to impact public policy. Social media has become an effective means of educating consumers and bringing about pro-consumer marketplace changes. On the other hand, it has become a powerful tool for sellers who have creatively blurred the lines between promotional marketing and true consumer education.

All of these items have posed significant challenges to the success of consumer advocacy. Nevertheless, by understanding these challenges, we are still able to initiate important consumer protections.

2) What are some of the new initiatives that you want to drive in your new role as executive director at CFA?

Our biggest challenge will be reaching out to and engaging millennials and centennials in pro-consumer policymaking. These groups receive enormous amounts of marketing information about the products and services they buy and use, much of which appears to be unbiased advice. Because products and services have become so complex, they are voracious consumers of this information. Our challenge will be breaking through with unbiased, comparative consumer information that will actually help them make informed choices rather than choices influenced by creative and clever marketing programs.

3) CFA is hosting its annual Financial Services Conference next month. How does CFA determine what topics it will cover and how discussions will be approached?

Our most important goal is to facilitate open and respectful dialogue between what can sometimes be opposing viewpoints. For advocates to be effective, they have to fully understand the products, services, and objectives of those selling financial services. Conversely, those companies, who want to be successful need to understand the challenges facing consumers who use their products. We believe that creating a forum where true dialogue between buyers and sellers can be facilitated will result in a better understanding of the issues and, hopefully, consensus-based solutions. In order to accomplish this goal, we depend on an advisory committee made up of leaders in the various financial communities and the identification of issues from CFA’s long-standing financial consumer advocates. Both the corporate advisory committee and CFA staff contribute ideas for discussion as well as suggested experts representing a wide range of perspectives.

4) One of the top complaint categories amongst consumers is credit and debt. What are some ways the CFA is helping to remedy that issue?

CFA focuses on improving consumer education and financial literacy as well as promoting sensible and thoughtful public policy. Financial products and services related to credit and debt have become both extremely varied and complex — and the need for unbiased education is great. With help from its partners, CFA researches consumer attitudes towards and understanding of, financial issues in order to thoughtfully and effectively improve the consumer experience. One example is our working with VantageScore on our consumer credit knowledge program. The more consumers understand how their credit score is developed and used, the better able they are to manage that score. The annual CFA/VantageScore consumer survey and credit score quiz have significantly increased consumer understand of their score and its importance in their financial well-being. By bringing CFA’s advocacy and personal finance expertise together with VantageScore’s resources, we have been able to exponentially increase our effectiveness in addressing consumer concerns about credit and debt.

5) How is CFA able to provide “coverage” and expertise across so many consumer products and services?

While the 28 members of the CFA staff pales in comparison to the staffs of America’s financial corporations, we make up for it in expertise, dedication, and 100 percent focus on the financial concerns of consumers. Combining the hard work and stellar reputation of our incredible staff with the resources of our partners, we’ve created a platform for change that has continually improved the market environment facing today’s consumers.

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