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TESS VIGELAND: FreeCreditReport.com is one of the sites that will have to change the way it advertises. And that likely means no more "F-R-E-E that spells freeeeee." Leaving controversy aside for a moment, those ads are really catchy. As it turns out, there's also a kind of "Behind the Music" story to be told about them.
And who better to tell it than Marketplace's Sean Cole.
Free Credit Report commercial: They say a man should always dress for the job he wants / So why am I dressed up like a pirate in this restaurant? / It's all because some hacker stole my identity.
Sean Cole: So Free Credit Report has put out nine of these commercials over the past three years. And on the off-chance you haven't seen them, they're collectively like a sitcom of financial despair. Our hero is a slacker guitar player with curly hair, backed up by his trusty bassist and drummer. Like all of us, he just wants a comfortable life. And like a lot of us, he's thwarted by bad credit.
Free Credit Report commercial: Well I was shoppin' for a new car / Which one's me? / A cool convertible or an SUV? / Too bad I didn't know my credit was whack / 'Cause now I'm drivin' off the lot in a used subcompact / F-R-E-E that spells free...
He can never acquire the purchase of his dreams. He does manage to marry the girl of his dreams.
Free Credit Report commercial: But she didn't tell me her credit was bad / So, now...
It's a distinctly American saga, which is funny, because the actor who plays the slacker musician? That's not him singing. He just lip-synched the vocals. And when you hear his real voice, you will never look at these ads the same way again. Ready?
Eric Violette: Hi, my name is Eric Violette. I live in Quebec. I'm an actor, musician and a singer.
Eric Violette, the face of America's credit woes, is French-Canadian. The ads were all filmed in Montreal, presumably because it's cheaper. And when I found out who he really was, I had to drive up to Canada to talk to him.
Cole: I can't believe I'm sitting here with you.
Cole: You're famous.
Violette: Yeah. I heard about it.
Eric says he doesn't feel famous, usually. More on that in a minute. Initially, we just geeked out on all of this behind-the-scenes minutiae. He really does play all of the jingles accurately on guitar when they shoot. But he's not plugged in. Rather, they blare the pre-recorded tracks super loudly at the actors through a P.A. And when he's lip-synching, sometimes the way he pronounces English words doesn't look right.
Violette: On the Pirate one, like, I say "an atom bomb." [sings] "Na na na na.... Like an atom bomb."
Free Credit Report commercial: I should have seen it coming at me like an atom bomb. They monitor...
Violette: So I was always saying "A-tom bomb. A-tom bomb," because in French we say "bomb atomique -- a-TOM a-TOM-ic." The way you put your tongue is very different.
They shot the Pirate ad and the Dream Girl ad in September of 2007. And after that, Eric says he kind of forgot about the whole thing. They were commercials. He got paid. Not lavishly. But then, about three months later...
Violette: I began to receive e-mails from the United States from people I didn't know.
Fans. Lots of them. Some of whom were pretty ardent.
Violette: Yeah, I did receive some pictures of women naked. The first time, I was so surprised. It's so flattering, but she sent these pictures to the guy on the commercial, you know, so it's not me. It's like another reality for me, because they don't air the commercials here unless you have satellite television. So people don't recognize me very often over here because of these commercials.
I decided to test this out.
[Sound: Car horn honks.]
I stood out on Boulevard St. Laurent holding two pictures of Eric, including a screen shot from one of the ads.
Cole: Excuse me. My name's Sean Cole. I work for public radio in the States. I'm just wondering if you've ever seen this man before?
Woman 1: Uh, no. Never.
I asked 64 people. About 54 of them had the same answer.
Woman 2: Never, no.
Woman 3: No.
Man 1: No.
Woman 4: Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnno I don't think so.
And of the handful who did recognize him, it was usually for the same reason.
Cole: And are you guys Canadian or American?
Man 2: Uh, we're American. [Sings] "F-R-E-E that spells freeeeee. Credit report dot come babyyyy!" Yeah, I've seen the commercial, man!
Violette: It's very weird. You have no idea. You know, I cross the border, and the guy at the border recognizes me, you know?
Cole: Is the guy at the border surprised when you open your mouth?
Violette: Oh yeah! And he's like, "You're French Canadian? Whoa!" And he laugh. He laugh. All the time.
Imagine there's a line drawn in the dirt about two hours from your house. Cross it and everything goes haywire. People stop Eric on the street in America and ask for his autograph. They want pictures with him. At one point he made the mistake of going to Mardi Gras.
Violette: And when people recognize me they were obviously pretty drunk. So they were louder than, I don't know.... It was like, "Hey that's the FreeCreditReport.com guy!" So everybody like ... Foom! Turn their head.
He finally had to wear sunglasses. We're talking real fame. And Eric, ultimately, wants to be famous. But not like this. He's a serious actor, mostly does live theater, and a serious musician, too, with a new band called "God Against God."
Violette: God Against God is about the lack of spirituality that we have in North America or the too much spirituality. I think in the United States it's...
I never thought I would be discussing theology with the FreeCreditReport.com guy. His real music is a lot more nuanced and important than "F-R-E-E that spells free." This is from a studio demo the band just recorded, paid for by Eric's Free Credit Report money.
"God Against God" demo: Light is coming in the box / Set free by their God.
Violette: Obviously, I'm gonna make everything possible to put God Against God on the map, you know? But at the same time I will always have this thing following me. [Whispers] "The FreeCreditReport.com guy! No, you're the FreeCreditReport.come guy. Ha ha ha!"
Then again, he says maybe being FreeCreditReport.com guy could help him promote his music. I did ask him about the controversy surrounding the site, and the new rules that could take his gig away. "If it's good for the American people, I think it's a good thing," he said. "My life is not based on those commercials."
In Montreal, Quebec, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace Money.