Skip to main content

Credit card ad ‘distresses’ SAR group

Members of Search say the TV commercial, depicting a false SOS call, could encourage copycats

Members of Search say the TV commercial, depicting a false SOS call, could encourage copycats

Bahamian Nick Wardle was stunned when he saw the Capital One television commercial of a man pretending to be unconscious on a beach next to a bonfire spelling out “SOS.” When help arrives, the prostrate man jumps up and says, “Ha! Ha! Gotcha!” and asks his wife hiding in the bushes if she got photos of the surprised rescuers.

Many viewers saw it as a funny commercial for the credit card company. Wardle and others in the search-and-rescue community saw it as advertising for false distress signals, a serious problem for maritime rescue agencies.

Wardle, president of Search, a foundation that raises money to assist voluntary search-and-rescue organizations in the Caribbean, first saw the commercial twice on ABC after the televised Sept. 30 presidential election debates. “My jaw dropped,” says Wardle, of Nassau. “Everyone I’ve spoken to has a similar reaction. They’re all appalled by it.”

Wardle shot off an e-mail to Capital One advising them that he didn’t find the commercial at all funny, and that it depicted “an internationally illegal act, punishable by very heavy fines and/or jail time.”

The commercial reached millions of viewers. Wardle says he worries that foolish copycats who found the ad funny will try something similar without understanding that false alerts put rescue crews in danger, waste money, and take scarce assets away from legitimate cases.

Wardle asked readers of Search’s newsletter to e-mail Capital One and register their objections to the commercial. He also suggested to the company — and the television networks that aired the ad — that they repair their good name by withdrawing the ad and making a donation to Search.

“They e-mailed me back, ‘Sorry you were offended. It was just meant to be humorous,’ ” he says.

By December, the ads were no longer running and had been replaced by one showing Viking marauders. Wardle hadn’t received any donations from Capital One. “I’m not holding my breath,” he says.

“The ad is, in fact, off the air, as the promotion has ended,” says Capital One’s Pam Girardo in an e-mail. “The actions of the fictional island owners are intended to be humorous for the viewer, and in no way encourage prankster-like activities. It certainly was not our intent to interfere with the valuable work conducted by rescue workers, nor do we condone the transmission of hoax distress signals.”

She says consumer research indicates consumers liked the ad’s “exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek humor.” The commercial promoted Capital One’s No-hassle Island Giveaway Sweepstakes, which offered an island as the grand prize for one winner and island getaways for runners-up.

The Coast Guard responds to more than 40,000 search-and-rescue calls each year. In hundreds of cases believed hoaxes, rescuers don’t find anything and don’t receive any confirming reports of an overdue boat. A six-hour search involving just a helicopter costs more than $40,000.