It Doesn’t Add Up: Carol Vorderman And The Shady World Of Financial Advertising

The former Countdown presenter’s curious history with the murky worlds of debt consolidation and equity release.

In the UK, daytime TV adverts are where common sense goes to die. Aimed squarely at the retired – although a few now cater to anxious new parents, for variety – they create a vision of a world that is riddled with opportunistic thieves, callous funeral directors and a sense that everything will just be okay if you only take the small step of remortgaging your house. To make their ads stand out, many companies think it’s a good idea to hire a celebrity for this purpose. It makes sense: having already stumped up tens of thousands to script, shoot and distribute an advert, why not add something else to the bill if it’s going to mean you get a better level of reimbursement? Hence you often see the likes of Eamonn Holmes, now the face of aches and pains, deadpanning his way through a number of advertisements for the likes of those gadgets that reinvigorate your legs by mildly electrifying them. All this, for a mere £300!

But £300 is a drop in the ocean compared to some of the demands for cash, or the implications of the services, which select daytime TV ads oh-so happily proffer. And it makes a certain level of sense to front ads intended for the older viewer with someone like Holmes, who – as one of the most well-known former faces of daytime TV himself – lends a certain gruff veritas to the services on sale. There’s no especial reason he’d be a trusted means of selling a gadget like Revitive other than the fact that he’s of a certain vintage, and well-known as a presenter. That’s it. It simply means that these ads stick in the mind a little more than, say, one of the many Over 50s life insurance plans that stumble through a few unlikely conversations between neighbours before guilting the elderly into a disastrous financial arrangement, all for the benefit of their grown-up kids of course. Holmes has, disappointingly, lent his name to an equity release service too, though again it’s his familiarity which has made him a good candidate, rather than any suggestion that he’s a financial expert: indeed, it turns out he’s anything but.

Which brings me onto another famous face who has by now a fairly illustrious track record of peddling magic beans to the worried and desperate – Carol Vorderman. Vorderman is perhaps less-known to younger viewers these days for her earlier television work, it being nearly fifteen years since she left the show that made her name, and for some, she’s more likely to be known as a constant feature of the Daily Mail’s Sidebar of Shame, where eager celebs strive to maintain a profile via semi-nude selfies on Instagram – something the Mail obligingly allows them to do for the clicks, perpetuating a faintly silly and pointless symbiotic partnership, the kind that essentially props up sites and profiles alike these days. I don’t find it particularly interesting, even if it’s occasionally quite creative, to chart Vorderman’s given reasons for why she’s not wearing clothes on any given day and a picture just happens to land on her Instagram; whatever else this is, it’s pretty harmless, and it’ll likely continue for as long as there’s dopamine in Ms Vorderman’s body to be enjoyed. No, this isn’t the issue I have with her.

I mentioned that many young people might struggle to remember how the name ‘Carol Vorderman’ came to be known in the first place, but for anyone born a little earlier, we might remember that she was in the first-ever show to transmit from Channel 4, which was at the time the vessel of hope that there was other, better telly to be had. Remember that these were the days of terrestrial TV; there was as yet no satellite, no streaming, and you were stuck with whatever the main channels wanted to show you. True, Countdown – the numbers and letters game that still runs to this day – might not have been the most creative, auspicious show to launch with, but it was clearly popular, and one of the reasons for this was the presence of Carol Vorderman herself. Whilst some of her role was achingly similar to the roles performed by other women on game shows, i.e. performing a completely perfunctory job by simply selecting the numbers themselves, one step above waving or draping oneself over a car, Vorderman broke out of this by showing aptitude with the numbers part of the game. A woman, doing sums under timed conditions! Good grief. Were the contestants unsuccessful with adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing in the time allotted, the ‘broad at the board’ was given a moment to show them how it was done. She became a popular, well-liked member of the Countdown team, and she stayed put for over twenty-five years, which is an impressive career in broadcasting by anyone’s standards.

Viz, as usual, nailing it

After leaving the show over a pay dispute – Vorderman was allegedly angry at a suggested wage cut that would have taken her down to a poverty-level £100,000 per annum (admittedly a 90% cut, and hence a wage that will have harried rational thinking) – she has appeared on various shows as a presenter, many of which target the same unemployed/formerly-employed audience as Countdown did, and does. Loose Women, for instance, a magazine-style format where a group of women compete to utter the most hardline soundbite and get the biggest round of applause from the studio audience – was hosted by Vorderman for a period of years. But for those of a certain age, it’s impossible that they will have forgotten why they know Vorderman in the first place: as a woman with mathematical ability, a woman who knows her way around numbers and a woman who can be trusted to understand numbers. Whether she received a third-class honours degree in Mathematics or not is a moot point (though by the way, who has ever met someone in person with a third-class degree?) To many people, she is Good at Maths, so if she puts her name to a financial product, it must therefore be trustworthy.

That way ruin potentially beckons, and Ms Vorderman doesn’t seem to care. When she was still the face of Countdown, she began advertising a now-defunct company called FirstPlus, a subsidiary of Barclays – who didn’t get where they are today by playing nice, it’s true. This was a ‘debt consolidation’ company, which sounds helpful: what it actually means is that people get the option of grouping their debts into one payment which is secured against their property. Worse still, the company was found to be valuing these debts at more than the value of the clients’ homes, which created negative equity. “Splash out a bit,” Vorderman cooed in the ads, as if potentially pissing your equity up a wall was no big thing. Tellingly, she refused to step down from the ads when challenged for her role in them. As far as she was concerned, there had been ‘no repossessions’ as a result of the service. Only because negative publicity threatened to make the lovely, affable remortgaging firm look a bit bad, mind you, and it would be interesting to challenge her dismissive comments more fully, but what is certain is this: when struggling with mounting debts, repossession of a property is the end game. It doesn’t take into consideration the stress, arguments, anxiety and potential impact on a person’s day-to-day existence. What if, as with the lady in the article above, something happens which makes the new arrangement suddenly fraught? What if there’s no one to help you, what if there’s no meagre £100,000 minimum yearly income to fall back on? It’s easy to forget how others live, I suppose, and even easier to implausibly deny that it’s your leering mug on the telly that gives people the false confidence to get themselves into such a hole as this.

But this was in the mid-Noughties, before the financial crash that saw FirstPlus retire its services; people are now reconsidering their contracts with FirstPlus and there’s a healthy interest in legal redress for potentially mis-sold financial products that looks set to rumble on and on. And, since then, Ms Vorderman herself has been a victim of credit card fraud, which may make her reflect differently on her role as a facilitator for the kinds of people who are only a rung or two up the ladder, right?


Ten years after the FirstPlus debacle, our Carol was back, this time shilling for SunLife, an equity release initiative. For anyone unsure, equity release is, essentially, a second mortgage: you get a chunk of the money currently ‘locked’ in your home, on the expectation that this is repaid, either when you die or enter long-term care. It makes the process of leaving any money in an inheritance a lot more questionable, and it is not to be undertaken lightly; of course, the SunLife adverts don’t want anyone to worry their little heads about that, so over to Carol to swing a chainsaw about, pattering on about conservatories and trips to the Bahamas. As ever, she’s happy to read from a suitable script, which doesn’t trivialise the issues at hand whatsoever:

Two possibilities are open here: she’s learned nothing, or she doesn’t give a toss.

Presumably, if it’s crossed her mind at all, Vorderman assumes that everyone who remembers the minor furore about FirstPlus has either gone into employment – assuming they were on the dole rather than retired – or they’ve died, so she’s good to go. And perhaps because fewer people now remember the fact that she’s done alright in her life off the back of being Good at Maths, she’s getting an easier time now she’s chosen to wed her name to questionable financial advice all over again. Of course, she’s put her name to plenty of questionable trending products over the years – detox diets, sudoku, cholesterol-busting yoghurts (cholesterol seems far less de rigeur these days) – and all of these might be perplexing, even laughable, whilst obviously each of these entices you to blow your money on products of debatable quality. But loans, equity release? These are in a different, potentially life-ruining league, and there are plenty of people around whose memories are not all that short after all. It would be nice if Carol Vorderman’s fastidious concern for her own wellbeing extended to others, and it would be nice if financial companies were the ones to forget her long-standing appeal to audiences on the basis of her mathematical prowess; sadly, as of all-too recently, that was not the case. After all, it’s not like Vorderman will need to take out equity release any time soon, at least not if she keeps raking in tens of thousands of pounds by promoting it to the less well-off.


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One comment

  1. Mathematical genius that she is, Vorderman should know that there are many different variables that life can throw at you, even/especially in old age. Debilitating illnesses of the body and mind, divorce (not unheard of in later life), unemployment, government fuckery with the one source of income that most folks in their sixties/seventies will rely on. Lots of cool stuff. I guess there’s only a single statistic in many a celebrity mind – number 1.
    We’re all always one step away from living in caves again. Here’s a blast from the past…I wonder how many celebs believe they still have a place reserved in the bunkers?

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