It's been a big year for deception. Millie the White House dog "wrote" a best-seller. Milli Vanilli "sang" their way to the top of the charts. And Volvo ran a TV commercial showing one of its cars withstanding the pounding of a huge truck.
Volvo's great moment in deception -- the car in its commercial was specially rigged -- was memorialized yesterday by a coalition of consumer and health groups who gathered in Washington to heap sarcasm and bile on Madison Avenue. The Swedish automaker was among 10 corporations vilified for ads variously deemed "irresponsible," "misleading" and in just plain bad taste.
As is the custom at the Harlan Page Hubbard Awards, none of the "winners" showed up to accept their trophies, small statuettes topped by a lemon. The awards are named for a 19th century marketer of such quack medicines as Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, which was sold as a cure for everything from low sex drive to cancer.
The infamous Volvo ad, in which a truck crushes a line of parked cars but rolls right over the top of a Volvo, was given the Hubbard "Hall of Shame" trophy for "classic fraud." After being sued by the Texas state attorney general in October, Volvo was forced to admit that the Volvos used to produce the commercial were actually reinforced with welded steel rods and wooden planks.
A Volvo spokesman said the ad was a "re-creation" of an actual event in which a Volvo survived under a "monster" truck. "It was never Volvo's intention to deceive or mislead the public," he said, admitting that a "mistake" was made during production that "compromised the commercial's validity." Volvo has pulled the commercial off the air, and the ad agency that created it has resigned the account.
Two companies were singled out yesterday as dual Hubbard winners: General Motors Corp.'s Oldsmobile division and Philip Morris Cos.
The Center for Auto Safety (CAS), one of the participating consumer groups, cited an Olds commercial that claims General Motors "pioneered the air bag"; the CAS said GM has lobbied against air bags for years and has a lower percentage of its models equipped with the safety device than either Ford or Chrysler. Another Olds ad, featuring race car driver Johnny Rutherford, was criticized by the Safe Energy Communication Council for bragging about the cars' fuel efficiency. The organization said the Cutlass gets an average of 23 miles per gallon, well under the Environmental Protection Agency's average fleet standard of 27.5 miles per gallon.
Oldsmobile spokesman Gus Buenz responded that some Olds models came with optional air bags between 1974 and 1976, before other makers offered them. He said the fuel efficiency claim is in comparison with other cars in the Cutlass's price-range and engine size. "What we are saying is strictly based on fact," Buenz said.
Philip Morris came in for criticism of its campaign promoting the Bill of Rights and for a magazine ad promoting its Virginia Slims Superslims brand. The Virginia Slims ad shows a woman whose image is distorted as if by a fun-house mirror; the National Women's Health Network said the ad creates the illusion that smoking makes women more slender and attractive.
Philip Morris denied charges by the Coalition on Smoking or Health that its Bill of Rights ads "appropriated" the Constitution for profit; the ads have generated an "overwhelmingly positive" response from callers who have requested 3 million free copies of the document from the company, a spokeswoman said. A Virginia Slims representative, Les Zuke, called the award "absurd." He said, "The image of the model indicates the slenderness of the cigarette."
Other Hubbard "winners" were Pan Am, for ads that brag that its planes are "among the youngest" flying the Atlantic (the Aviation Consumer Action Project said Pan Am is counting refurbished aircraft as new); and Kellogg's Special K cereal, for spreading allegedly deceptive nutrition information.
Some of the ads singled out -- for Oldsmobile, Virginia Slims and Special K -- were created by the Chicago ad agency Leo Burnett Inc. Burnett's general counsel, Carla Michelotti, stuck by the agency's work, saying, "We and our clients have the necessary substantiation for all of the claims made in our ads."