I was recently berating a senior executive at one of the car companies (my only pleasure in this job) about fuel economy claims.
Every manufacturer purports to have the best fuel economy in some class or other. How can they all be best? What's a customer to believe, let alone a bewildered journo?
Occasionally you will read in tiny, tiny print at the end of the ad that "our" car was the super-economy model with the seats removed running downhill in a tail wind while "their" car was the 7-litre V-8 with mud tires climbing Pike's Peak towing a horse trailer. But not always; generally the claim is made unqualified and with no supporting evidence.
"Not us," yelped the chastised exec. "We are purer than the fresh fallen snow." Or words to that effect.
The exec went on to explain that there are government guidelines in place about the claims one can make about fuel economy but these standards are voluntary. He or she then whipped out 50 pages of Transport Canada gibberish from 2008 (you'll note I'm protecting my source as there is good stuff still to come) which did spell out precisely how manufacturers should state and qualify their claims. If they all followed the guidelines, I wouldn't have a beef – but they don't.
This whole fuel economy business is becoming more and more important to car customers who are getting tired of emptying their wallets at the gas pumps. Tougher new measures coming in 2016 will make playing fair with customers all the more important. So the manufacturers have signed on to the Transport Canada guidelines but they're voluntary, non-binding and unenforced. If you have a complaint – tough. Go take it up with the Advertising Standards Council and see how far you get.
Don't think the manufacturers aren't aware of what's going on here. After more admonishment from me, my source reached into a dusty briefcase and pulled out an expensive report done by a media monitoring agency that logged and analyzed fuel economy claims in print and TV ads and on manufacturers' websites last October and November.
It was fascinating reading and substantiated the point I was making in the first place.
Let's start with some of the print ads. They took exception to a compact car ad with "Wrong Highway value listed. According to Fuel Consumption Guide 2011, it is 50 mpg but is listed as 54." For a pickup truck, "Engine and transmission choice not listed." For a crossover, "Does not state which models are being compared."
The report found nine different TV ads from that period that were characterized as Non Compliance or Misleading Compliance. "Caption claims more pickup owners are switching to X. There is a very small disclaimer that is not legible." Another found, "Comparison was between a 1.6 L/4 Cyl and a 1.5 L/4 Cyl." Finally, on the websites the hired agency uncovered numerous examples of "No supporting evidence for this claim."
False advertising is clearly illegal, but deceptive advertising is harder to nail down.
Customers have the right to know what they are buying. If you buy a bagel in New York, they have to state exactly what's in the thing, including the exact number of calories you're about to consume. But if you buy a car in Canada, you'll undoubtedly be confused by some of the advertised claims.
It's interesting that Advertising Standards Canada just launched a series of ads (what else) in a campaign called "Truth in Advertising Matters." They're cutesy situations that have been exaggerated, followed by the statement that dressing it up doesn't make it true.
In announcing the campaign, ASC president and CEO Linda Nagel said, "We all know that maintaining consumer confidence in advertising is essential. That's why Advertising Standards Canada exists. Truth in advertising is equally important to the advertising industry and the public."
Maybe they'd do better to put the pressure on the auto makers. Voluntary guidelines aren't doing the job. If the guidelines make sense, make them mandatory.