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.