enabling advertising lies

From time to time when I tell someone that I work in advertising, I have to deal with complaints about how advertising is just misleading and that brands and agencies lie and so on and on (and on and on and on). From my side of the fence, of course, I am not only trying not to be untruthful but struggle every day with overbearing legal departments that basically do the copywriting for me, telling me what I can say and how I can say it (at least in certain categories).

Most recently, my grandmother asked me how it was possible for the tiny Smart car to get the highest possible crash test rating.

I looked it up and yes, this gas-powered Power Wheels of a car was awarded the highest-possible score for crashworthiness in frontal and side-impact collisions by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Without further research, it is plausible to assume, as my grandmother did, that the Smart car rates as well as, say, the 5,000 lb Mercedes C-Class that my grandfather bought her for their 50th wedding anniversary. It doesn’t really gut check that it is possible that these two cars could be equally as safe in front and side crashes, but if the government says so…

Except what the IIHS and the government aren’t telling you is that they rank cars only against others of the same type…so that while the Smart car may be the safest car in the MicroMachine category it is hardly safe compared to much larger, heavier cars.

A brand or an ad agency can advertise an IIHS rating, content that they are being honest in what they are doing – and they are – and yet still be misleading.

Because they are, unwittingly, being misleading.

It would be far more reasonable, honest and informative to have an objective standard by which to judge all cars against each other (and not just against cars in its class) so that consumers could make an informed choice…

An appropriate rating scale could effectively warn consumers of the inherent safety trade-off they make when they choose a smaller car (they may still make the trade-off, which is fine, but at least they know it is a trade-off) instead of, how the current system does it, making consumers blissfully unaware that their ridiculous little Smart car, despite its “good” rating, is likely to be squashed like a bug if it runs into anything larger than a bike messenger.

It may not make environmentalists happy as the scale would clearly show that a person is much less likely to die in an accident in a full-sized car than a compact or subcompact, surely driving at least a few consumers to purchase a larger car, but it would be truthful.

And truth is advertising is supposed to be a good thing.

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6 responses to “enabling advertising lies

  1. But isn’t that what “The Real Digital Revolution” that guy Alan Wolk keeps talking up is about?

    The fact that with all the car review sites up there, your dear sweet granny can go online (or have her clever grandson go online for her) and find the review sites that say “yeah, that test compares cars to others in the same category, it’s not too safe”

    And that knowledge will hopefully slow down sales of car companies that use misleading stats like that and turn them into honest, upstanding corporate citizens.

  2. I saw a great video on YouTube of crash tests with a Smart Car. The damn thing literally bounces when it hits stuff or when hit.

  3. i have a smart car. if you get hit by an SUV you bounce away in a mercedes-made steel cage. and then roll to a stop. sounds good to me!

  4. @theescapepod – you may bounce away in the best case scenario, but what if there is a car behind you? Or maybe you don’t bounce?

    You get squashed like grape.

    Though you will look very Euro-cosmopolitan trendy while it happens.

  5. A very Mr. Miyagi sort of image there, Biz.

  6. I guess the issue is that skirting the truth is rampant in advertising. Sad but true. Look at the current financial crisis. I heard yesterday that the CEO of WaMu sent letters to investors (eg, direct mail advertising) telling them their books were fine the day before their stock crashed… because their books were terrible. (That’s what I heard… sorry I don’t have a link.)

    What’s more, we have come to accept ridiculous claims from auto dealers, real estate agencies, etc. It’s just part of the landscape professional advertising people have to factor in when they create messages, and in all creative.

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