Crimes of Persuasion

Schemes, scams, frauds.

Dateline NBC Investigation of National Talent Associates Inc.

SHOW: Dateline

DATE: April 22, 1997


Announcer: From our studios in New York, here again is Stone Phillips.

STONE PHILLIPS: What parent hasn't looked into the eyes of a young child and thought, `she belongs in TV commercials,' or `he ought to be on the cover of a kids' magazine?' Dreaming about making your child a star is one thing, but plenty of parents do a lot more than dream. For those mothers and fathers, a lot of hard work lies ahead. And if anybody tells you they know a shortcut to stardom, watch out. Tonight, in a DATELINE Hidden Camera Investigation, chief consumer correspondent Lea Thompson shows us how expensive the lesson can be, when parents are sold on their own children's charms.

Unidentified Woman 1: Can you smile? Smile.

LEA THOMPSON reporting: (Voiceover) It's audition time and the competition is fierce. Fifty babies vying for the cover of Child magazine.

(Babies and small children having pictures taken; mothers and babies; Child magazine cover; person stapling picture to paper)

Unidentified Woman 2: I just think she's so pretty. And she's dainty and petite.

Unidentified Man: Who wants a big cookie?

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) These parents are all sure their baby is really something special.

(Father and mother with babies; babies being photographed; mother and baby)

Unidentified Woman 3: Beautiful baby, yeah.

THOMPSON: Of course, even if you're not trying to develop your child into a star, you think the same thing, right? That your child is absolutely adorable, perfect. And that's great unless your blinding love blots out your common sense and allows you to get taken.

Ms. TERESA SCHAPIRO: If anyone tells me my son is great, I'm going to believe them.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) Twenty-eight-year-old Teresa Schapiro is an administrative assistant for a brokerage firm. She says she always thought of herself as level headed. That is, until she got this letter from National Talent Associates, which calls itself the oldest and largest child management firm in the country. It said her son, Patrick, who was four months old at the time, had been brought to National Talent's attention and it might be interested in him.

(Teresa Schapiro walking down street; letter from National Talent Associates; photo of Patrick)


Oldest and Largest Firm of its Kind in America

Mr. PATRICK SCHAPIRO: Hickory dickory dock.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) Teresa says that got her thinking for the first time, about her son becoming a model.

(Teresa and Patrick)

THOMPSON: What in that letter made you think that your son was model material?

Ms. SCHAPIRO: Because he has been brought to their attention. That's what made me believe that. Now, my son's been brought to your attention.

Unidentified Woman 4: And that's the first line of the letter.

Ms. SCHAPIRO: That's what made me call them.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) All of these women made the same call, and they say, before long, a National Talent salesperson was at the door, telling them their children had real potential.

(Woman in interview)

Unidentified Woman 5: He said, `Oh, he's so adorable. He's so cute.'

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) That National Talent could get them lots of job interviews.

(Woman in interview with Thompson)

Unidentified Woman 6: At least once a month.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) With a chance to make big bucks.

(Women in interview with Thompson)

Woman 4: He said if she got into commercials or TV or movies, that you're talking thousands of dollars.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) And National Talent showed them pictures of children they'd signed like the Schultz twins, who landed a part in this Doublemint commercial. And Jessica Vaughn, who got a part as Bill Cosby's granddaughter on "The Cosby Show." The women say National Talent salespeople told them all they needed were professional photographs to send to modeling agencies, and they'd be on their way.

(Brochure showing children's pictures; photo of Melissa and Ashley Schultz; Doublemint commercial; excerpt from "The Cosby Show"; NTA office; photos of children)

Unidentified Woman 7: I felt that her pictures were going to be distributed all over--to all the agencies in New York.

Unidentified Woman 8: That's one of their biggest selling points. They're going to save you all this legwork.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) With a pitch like that, these women say it didn't take long to plunk down 435 for a five-year contract.

(Women in interview with Thompson)

Woman 5: You just get sucked right in.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) Convinced that some day soon, they'd be seeing their child in a commercial.

(Tire commercial)

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) On a cover or maybe even in a movie. But, they say, they never even got close.

(Magazine; excerpt from "Look Who's Talking"; women in interview)

THOMPSON: Did you ever get an interview?

Woman 6: No, never.

THOMPSON: Not one?

Woman 6: Not one.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) And what about all those modeling agencies they thought National Talent would be sending their child's pictures to?

(Cars on city street; skyscrapers)

THOMPSON: Do you remember him saying agencies or do you remember him saying agency, meaning only one?

Women: (In unison) Agencies.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) Well, actually, National Talent only sent pictures to one modeling agency and that agency rejected them. All most of them ever got was this form letter saying, thanks but no thanks.

(Building; letter)


I regret that I cannot accept your youngster

THOMPSON: Did you get anything for your 435?

Ms. SCHAPIRO: No, nothing at all. Nothing at all but aggravation. That's it.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) And when they complained, they say National Talent told them to be patient, to try again next year and it had done everything it had promised to do in its contract.

Well, let's take a closer look at that contract. In fact, right in the very first paragraph, it says National Talent will submit the baby pictures to only one modeling agency and that the agreement in no way guarantees employment.

(NTA building; NTA brochure; contract)

THOMPSON: Did you read the contract?

Ms. SCHAPIRO: Afterwards.

Woman 5: Afterward, yeah.

Woman 7: We tried.

Ms. SCHAPIRO: He didn't give us a chance to actually sit there and read the contract.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) But the women had three days to read the contract and cancel and didn't do it. And they apparently also didn't pay too much attention to another piece of paper National Talent gave them.

(Women in interview)

THOMPSON: Do you all remember this sheet?

Women: (In unison) Mm-hmm. Yes.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) It's a statement spelling out the success rate of the children who sign with National Talent.

(Women in interview)

THOMPSON: Only 3 percent of them have actually gotten a job. Do you remember reading that?

Woman 6: Yeah, uh-huh.

Woman 4: Yes, but they make you believe that your child would be in that 3 percent.

THOMPSON: Only three out of 20,000 have made over 10,000 in the last five years. Those are pretty heavy odds, and it was right in front of you.

Ms. SCHAPIRO: That was just on a piece of paper. The paper's not talking at us, he was. He was not letting us see the full picture there.

THOMPSON: So how could all these smart parents fork over big dollars with the facts right in front of them? What caused them to sign anyway? Well, we decided to find out, after one of DATELINE's associate producers also got a letter from National Talent saying his daughter, Casey, had been brought to its attention.

MATT: (Hidden video) Hi.

Unidentified Salesman 1: (Hidden video) Hi, Matt.

MATT: (Hidden video) Nice to meet you.

Unidentified Woman 9: (Hidden video) Hi.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) We asked Matt and his wife to set up a meeting with National Talent so we could tape the sales pitch with hidden cameras. He did not tell the company that he worked for DATELINE.

(Matt's wife and daughter being examined by salesman for National Talent)

Salesman 1: Yes, good.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) Right away the salesman seems impressed with Casey.

(Casey on mother's lap in conference room with salesman)

Salesman 1: Look at this. So animated!

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) He spends some time with her.

(Salesman with Casey)

Salesman 3: Very good, sweetheart.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) He takes some notes.

(Salesman writing at desk)

Salesman 1: She's obviously very photogenic--active, alert, curious, pressed ears as opposed to...(unintelligible)...ears.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) And 12 minutes after he's walked in the door, declares:

(Salesman sitting at desk)

Salesman 1: This is the kind of baby girl I go days, sometimes weeks--in this case, weeks, looking for.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) He says he rejects most other children.

(Casey and family sitting opposite salesman in desk)

Salesman 1: (Reading from paperwork) "Average baby, child average, mother too nervous."

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) But Casey, she has potential.

(Casey on mother's lap)

Salesman 1: She's got the potential. Otherwise, to be blunt about it, I still wouldn't be sitting here.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) He does show them that paper...

(Salesman flipping through papers at desk)

Salesman 1: Now, just to show you how ethical we are...

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) ...the one that shows only 3 percent of the children ever get a job. But he makes it sound like Casey could beat those odds.

(Salesman showing paperwork to Matt and family)

Salesman 1: I'm only allowed to offer the full service agreement to parents whose child has a realistic chance of being the one in 30, which she does.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) That paper shows something even more sobering--only a fraction of the children who sign up ever earn enough to recoup their initial investment. But he makes it sound like that's the parents' fault.

(Salesman talking to Matt and wife)

Salesman 1: It's because after the mother sees three or four of these print jobs, they've got their 465 back and they're happy and they quit--which is stupid.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) He tells us he thinks Casey could make up to 5,000, but it will cost us to sign up-- 465 plus a commission on what Casey earns. Do we have to pay the 465? Not necessarily. We can avoid the upfront fee, but we will have to do all the work ourselves.

(Salesman talking to Matt and wife)

Salesman 1: You do all the work. You hire the photographer, you make the phone calls, you make the submissions.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) He doesn't make it sound easy and he says if we find a job, National Talent will still get its commission for being our manager. On the other hand, he says, we will have a better chance of success if we pay the upfront money. That's because National Talent will arrange for pictures to be taken once a year for five years and will make sure they get seen by one large modeling agency on Madison Avenue.

(Salesman talking to Matt and wife)

Salesman 1: The director herself opens the packages and looks at the pictures of every child that we sign to the full service. So you get personal atten--in other words, there are perks that go along with the full service.

Unidentified Salesman 2: They're using all our kids for their ads.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) We taped other pitches too and heard more claims about National Talent's big connections in the child modeling world. These two representatives both tell us the pictures will go to a huge modeling agency they've worked with for years. It sounds like if we sign with National Talent, we'll have an in there.

(Salesman delivering sales pitch; woman walking with child in hand; split screen showing two salespeople delivering sales pitches)

Unidentified Saleswoman: "We have a direct line to the largest children's agency in the business. They need a kid of certain specification, they're going to call us."

Salesman 2: "They're not going to use any other kids. They're going to use our kids."

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) And we're told if we try to approach that agency on our own, we're not likely to get noticed.

(Salesman delivering pitch)

Salesman 2: "They'd say, `Yeah, leave us some pictures and we'll call you if we need him.' That's the end of it."

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) So just how much clout does National Talent have? We went to the the two industry giants in child modeling--Katie Ford of Ford Models and Natasha Esch of Wilhelmina.

(Ford and Esch)

THOMPSON: Have you ever heard of National Talent Associates?

Ms. KATIE FORD: I have never heard of National Talent Associates.

Ms. NATASHA ESCH: No, I have never heard of them.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) If that's the case, we wondered how this could be true:

(Esch; National Talent salesman delivering pitch)

Salesman 1: Translated: On a good day, anywhere from one-fourth to half the kids you see on TV and magazines are ours.

Ms. ESCH: I would find that impossible.

Ms. FORD: That is completely impossible.

THOMPSON: It just couldn't be? You'd know about them?

Ms. FORD: We would certainly know about them. They would be dominating the industry if that were the case.

Unidentified Woman 10: I have one of the Polaroids of her.

Unidentified Woman 11: Good. Nice.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) We checked with five other top children's agencies in the industry. They all told us they did not use National Talent's kids.

(Woman looking at photos of girl)

Unidentified Woman 12: Send 12 snapshots along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) And they all told us parents should send in snapshots rather than expensive professional photographs because candid pictures show a child's features better.

(Woman opening letter and looking at snapshot of baby)

Ms. FORD: The one thing to remember is not to spend any money ahead of time.

THOMPSON: No money up front?

Ms. FORD: That's right.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) Why? Ford says if a management firm or modeling agency already has your money, there's no incentive to find you child work.

(Woman holding baby; photographer taking pictures of baby)

Unidentified Woman 13: Where's that smile?

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) But National Talent claims it does work hard to find kids jobs.

(National Talent salesman)

Salesman 2: We work hard for them because it serves your purpose as well as our purpose. We get a kid work, that's where the money comes from.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) But let's look at the numbers. Based on figures in the company's brochure, we estimate, over a 10-year period ending in 1992, National Talent made an average of 100,000 a year in commissions. But if you multiply the upfront fee we pay by the average number of kids signed each year, National Talent National Talent would be getting over 1.8 million each year in upfront fees, collected long before any child ever sees a paycheck.

TEXT: 465 fees 4040 kids PER YEAR


1,878,600 UPFRONT FEES

(National Talent brochure; National Talent logo and estimated figures from commissions and upfront fees)

THOMPSON: So if National Talent is misleading parents, why hasn't anybody cracked down? Well it turns out, the Federal Trade Commission has been trying to for over 20 years.

Salesman 1: Now, just to show you how ethical we are...

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) Remember when the salesman gave the company's success rate to our parents? Well, that wasn't National Talent's idea.

(Salesman giving pitch)

THOMPSON: It was ordered to do it by the FTC way back in 1975. And the government also spelled out exactly what National Talent cannot tell parents about its services. Over the years the FTC has repeatedly brought complaints against the company and National Talent, without admitting any wrongdoing, has had to pay 175,000 in civil penalties. But had all that government action worked?

(Voiceover) The 1975 order forbids National Talent from even implying that it has the expertise essential to judge those most qualified to be used as models. But this man certainly seemed to be judging.

(FTC order to National Talent; salesman opening briefcase and taking out photos)

Salesman 1: This is the kind of baby girl I go days, sometimes weeks--in this case, weeks, looking for.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) The order forbids National Talent from telling parents that their child's chances of being signed by a modeling agency will be "aided, increased or enhanced by signing" with National Talent. But remember, we heard:

(Order from Federal Trade Commission to National Talent; excerpts from order; saleswoman)

Saleswoman: Have a direct line to the largest children's agency in the business.

Salesman 2: They're not going to use any other kids. They're going to use our kids.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) Yet, National Talent continues to thrive, signing up thousands of kids every year from offices in four states--the vast majority never getting one job. And remember Jessica Vaughn, the little girl from "The Cosby Show"? Even though she was one of the few National Talent kids to make it big, her mother told us National Talent did very little for her daughter.

(Map of United States showing offices of National Talent; excerpts from "The Cosby Show")

THOMPSON: If you were going to do it today, knowing what you know, would pay a fee up front?

Unidentified Woman 14: No. Never.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) And she says she tells other parents to got directly to the modeling agencies and steer clear of National Talent.

(Thompson and Vaughn's mother)

Woman 14: I don't believe that they should be taking money from thousands of parents.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) National Talent declined our repeated requests for an on-camera interview and would not put us in touch with parents whose children got work, as we asked. And the company refused to return any of the money these parents paid, despite their repeated requests.

(National Talent office; group of parents who signed with National Talent)

Woman 7: What hurt me the most was that it was my daughter's money. I took her money from her own savings account and put it out.

THOMPSON: (Voiceover) Once, they thought National Talent would make their children famous. Now they say they just hope others can learn from their mistakes.

(Photos of children)

Unidentified Woman 15: (Voiceover) Every child is a star in your own eyes. But you have to be careful who you're dealing with.

(Children being photographed)

PHILLIPS: Later this month, the Federal Trade Commission is scheduled to take National Talent to court, to answer the latest charges against the company. National Talent denies the charges, and the FTC declined our requests for an interview, because of the upcoming trial. And one final note, our associate producer Matt never took Casey to get her picture taken, but even so, he did get one message from National Talent about an audition for his daughter. But by the time he called back, four hours later, he was told he was too late.