I’m Not a Client, But I Play One on TV

Several years ago, a very distinguished-looking man began to appear on TV commercials. He wore a beautiful suit, had a stethoscope around his neck, and stood in front of a bookcase filled with medical journals. He looked for all the world like the Surgeon General of the United States holding a press conference at the Mayo Clinic. He then solemnly announced:

I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.

Having disclosed such impressive medical credentials, he then went on to tell us what pain reliever we should buy.

It was an incredibly effective commercial, ranking right up there with the unforgettable Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” ad and my all-time favorite commercial in which the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mean Joe Green limps off the field and heads for the locker room, only to find his health and energy restored when he is offered an ice-cold Coca Cola by an admiring young fan.

Consumers of pain-relief products did not seem to be bothered by the fact that the “doctor” that gave them advice on the commercial was actually an actor. All of us TV addicts know that everyone we see on TV, with the exception of the Kardashians, are just actors playing roles. For example, do you remember the commercial in which an elderly lady rolls on the floor and screams, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”? Well, we all know that lady wasn’t your grandmother. We also know she never really fell on the floor. She was an actress rolling around pretending she fell on the floor. This did not dissuade any of us from buying the product that was designed to keep our grandmothers from falling on the floor. For the life of me, I can’t remember what the product was, but at my age, I sure wish I could remember it, so that I can buy it.

I’ve been watching TV for more than 60 years now. Not in one sitting, mind you. I have occasionally gotten up from my couch to go to the bathroom, make a sandwich, or raise my family. In my 60 years of TV viewing, I have spent hundreds of thousands of hours watching TV commercials, and I’ve always been aware of the fact that all of the people and characters I saw on the commercial were simply actors. Speedy Alka-Seltzer, Mr. Clean, and the Old Spice man in the towel (“Hello, ladies!”) are all just actors. Jerrod probably doesn’t eat Subway sandwiches, and Flo (a woman I find highly irritating) does not work for the Progressive Insurance Company.

This doesn’t bother me at all.

Maybe it should. I will tell you that if I ever have to undergo cardiovascular surgery, I want it done by a real doctor, rather than by an actor who plays a heart surgeon on TV, even if he looks like Dr. Marcus Welby.

And the next time I get on a commercial airliner, I do not want to hear the “pilot” come over the intercom and announce in his best Chuck Yeager-voice, “Well, good morning, folks, and welcome to Trans Mississippi Air! I’m not a pilot but I play one on TV, and I’ll be flying the plane today!”

I would not want an actor to fly me anywhere, even if the actor was Leslie Nielson.

But if that same actor appeared on a TV commercial dressed like a pilot and simply told me I should fly Trans Mississippi, I would probably buy a ticket if the price was good.
Recently, while sitting on my couch eating large quantities of Tostitos, I have noticed a number of commercials from my fellow Tennessee lawyers. These commercials often feature “clients” who give testimonials. They typically go something like this:

I was recently in a terrible car wreck, and afterwards Flo from the Progressive Insurance Company came to my hospital room and tried to force me to sign papers accepting a ridiculously low amount for my injuries. But then, I heard about “Two Lawyers and a Truck.” I called the two lawyers. They got in their truck, drove to my hospital room, immediately wrestled Flo to the floor and got me a large settlement! Thanks, Two Lawyers and a Truck!

As it turns out, often the client that appears in such a commercial is not actually a client at all. He or she is an actor. However, in the commercials, they never say, “I’m not a lawyer’s client, but I play one on TV!”

This advertising approach concerns a number of Tennessee lawyers. One of them is my friend Matt Hardin of Nashville, who is a lawyer but does not play one on TV.
Matt petitioned the Tennessee Supreme Court to issue a new ethics rule banning the practice of actors pretending to be clients in TV commercials. Matt’s petition to the court stated in part as follows:

Actors’ portrayal of clients is inherently misleading. Attorney commercials in our state often show healthy individuals played by actors/models living active lifestyles without physical restrictions. Then a large settlement or judgment amount is shown on the screen. There is often no reference to the actual injuries incurred by these clients. Rather, these actors/models appear happy, healthy, and flourishing. While this may be true in some instances, most lawsuits resulting in large verdicts are the result of seriously and irreparably harmed individuals. This gives potential clients a false expectation of possible outcomes from filing suit.

Matt Hardin’s petition was heard by the Tennessee Supreme Court this spring. At least I think it was the Supreme Court that conducted the oral argument. It may have been five actors who bore uncanny resemblances to our current five Tennessee Supreme Court justices. There is an unconfirmed rumor that Reese Witherspoon played Justice Sharon Lee.
But whether they were actors or real judges, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied Hardin’s petition.

And so now, there remains no restriction whatsoever on the right of a Tennessee lawyer to hire Morgan Freeman, Lindsay Lohan or Tom Hanks to appear on TV and say, “I had fallen, and I couldn’t get up! And so I yelled ‘help!’, and who should come to my aid but Two Lawyers and a Truck! They got me back on my feet, gave me a check for one million dollars, and I am now training for the Country Music Marathon!”

In closing, let me just add: Contrary to what you may think when you see me, I am Bill Haltom, not Brad Pitt, and I approved this message.


Bill Haltom BILL HALTOM is a partner with the Memphis firm of Thomason, Hendrix, Harvey, Johnson & Mitchell. He is past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is a past president of the Memphis Bar Association.