If defrauders of consumers were relieved when the Pennsylvania State Senate rejected Herb Denenberg’s nomination in 1975 by Gov. Shapp to be head of the Public Utility Commission, they need only turn on WCAU-TV in Philadelphia for the daily 6 p.m. news to get agitated all over again. For there on the screen appears their nemesis, “Horrible Herb” — the hottest consumer TV reporter in the country — excoriating marketplace ripoffs, often through biting humor. With his record for accuracy and the remarkable freedom accorded him by the CBS affiliate, Denenberg has focused his monocle on such items as Excedrin, Preparation H, Hershey Chocolate, Tang, Countrytime Lemonade, RediWhipped Cream. These and other products he subjects to his favorite poem:
Things are seldom what they seem; Skim Milk masquerades as cream If product labels had a nose,
They’d all look like Pinocchio’s.
The everyday consumer products that he believes are ineffective for their advertised purpose or are deceptively promoted find themselves relegated to a reconverted wastebasket — called “Denenberg’s Dump” — to the delight of thousands of his TV fans.
It helps that Deneberg is both a lawyer and a national authority on insurance, as attested by his numerous publications when he was a professor at the Wharton School of Business. But he certainly doesn’t speak like a lawyer or a professor. Here is a sample excerpt from his regular weekday report:
“We Checked the breakfast cereals being pushed at supermarkets for kids. We found names like: Trix Artificial Fruit-Flavored Frosted Corn Puffs, Super Sugar Crisps with Monster Posters Inside, Fruity Freakies, Cocoa Puffs, Yahoo, Munchy, Crunchy Chocolate Puffs.
“We were so impressed by all the kiddy-cereals with sugar that we wrote a commercial to sell them. Most of the commercials appeal to children, so we’ve written one for their parents.
“It goes like this. Get your child started early on the road to cancer, high blood pressure, obesity and the other glories of our modern civilization.
“Many of our cereals are loaded with sugar — up to SO percent. We call them cereal, but they are really candy dressed up to look like cereal and sell like cereal. So you think you’re giving your kids cereal, when you’re really feeding them breakfast candy.
“There’s growing evidence that over consumption of sugar can make a significant contribution to dental decay. So get your children started with bad eating habits early.
“Instead of Teaching your child to appreciate natural flavors, our cereals will get him hooked on artificial flavor, sugar, artificial color and other additives of questionable safety.
“Our cereals may not always be overly nutritious . . . so we fortify them with vitamins and minerals and suggest you eat them with milk — so you’ll get plenty of calcium and other nutrients.
“We also forgot to mention our artificial coloring, additives, processing and promotion make our sweet cereals cost two or three times more than old fashioned gat meal. Marie Antoinette said `Let them eat cake’ and we say let them eat additives, sugar, artificial flavor, BHA, BHT and maybe a little cake, too.”
Denenberg Defines consumer problems broadly so his programs range from government services he-believes are wasteful or worse to the frequent mistreatment of consumers by physicians, dentists and lawyers. His television station is so pleased that it recently gave him a three year extension.
Readers (and deprived viewers) can write to Herb Denenberg at WCAU-TV, City Avenue and Monument Road, Philadelphia, Pa. 19131, for sample copies of his nightly reports. Include a stamped, self-addressed envelope.