Have you seen "Extreme Couponing?" It can't be real, can it? I've never seen so many coupons for free food in my life. On the last episode, two shoppers had more than 700 coupons for free pizza. This is what you should be writing about in your column! — Fascinated Watcher
Yes, I have seen the show, which is back for another season. And despite the "reality" label, much of what happens on "Extreme Couponing" is not real.
When the show premiered on TLC in 2010, coupon shoppers around the country hit the Web to voice their concern about the rampant coupon misuse and fraud depicted on the show. Some of the show's shoppers were using coupons for products they didn't buy, which they later admitted to the media, and some stores agreed to double coupons for the show — but not for other shoppers.
One supermarket chain blew the whistle on the show's rule-bending, policy-lifting and staging. Lowes Foods released a statement expressing its regret for participating in the show, and admitted that a member of the show's production crew posed as a customer on camera. Lowes acknowledged waiving part of its policy for the benefit of TV cameras and apologized to its regular customer base.
Another episode featured a 16-year-old boy who bought 34 packages of toilet paper with 34 free-product coupons. After the register beeped and showed an error, the cashier manually pushed the free coupons through, right in front of the cameras.
What happened next wasn't shown on TV. When the supermarket sent the free toilet paper coupons in for redemption, the manufacturer refused to reimburse the store because all of the coupons were counterfeit. The teen's mother later paid the store $400 for the value of the fake coupons that her son used.
During the "All-Stars" season of "Extreme Couponing," shoppers were pitted against each other in a game-show-style competition to see who could save the most with coupons. The winner of the challenge used 200 free-product coupons for laundry detergent, which looked impressive on camera.
But about a month after the "All-Stars" finale aired, the manufacturer of the detergent released a statement that said all 200 coupons the shopper used were counterfeit.
Dustin Smith, vice president of communications for Discovery Communications (parent company of TLC) declined to comment. The show's production company did, however, decide to continue promoting the teenager with the toilet paper counterfeits by taking him on a second shopping trip. TLC featured the teen and his new shopping trip on a subsequent episode of "Extreme Couponing," but never acknowledged his counterfeit coupon usage.
I think it's unfortunate that cutting a grocery bill in half isn't exciting enough for the TV cameras. Some shoppers have resorted to criminal activity to achieve over-the-top "Extreme Couponing"-style shopping trips. To date, none of the shoppers who used counterfeit coupons on the show have come forward to say why.
Coupon Information Corporation, the coupon industry's watchdog group, has urged retailers not to participate in future tapings of the show.
If you're trying to achieve the extreme savings depicted on the show, please understand that some of these dramatic trips won't be possible unless you break the law! Unfortunately, with the network, the shoppers and, in some cases, the stores all turning a blind eye to the rules, it gives uninformed shoppers the impression that everything on this "reality" show is real.
Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her website, http://www.jillcataldo.com . Email your own couponing victories and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org .