• Consumers Question Clean Car Ads
  • April 12, 2005
  • Law Firm: Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • Over 22,000 consumers have asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into ads by the auto industry that claim that today's cars are "virtually emission-free," according to the agency. The e-mail campaign is spearheaded by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a consumer advocate group with about 100,000 members. Its Web site asks visitors to send an e-mail to the FTC asking it to "immediately open a false advertising investigation" of advertised claims by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a car industry lobbying group.

    The "virtually emission-free" claim, which has appeared in ads in Washington, D.C., publications and on radio since January, is aimed at federal lawmakers. The auto alliance, which includes Detroit's Big Three -- Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., and DaimlerChrysler -- and foreign automakers BMW and Toyota, is running the campaign to publicize the industry's progress in manufacturing cleaner cars.

    To illustrate the claim, the ads feature slice-of-life vignettes such as a toddler in a car seat covered with the remains of melted ice cream. "Autos manufactured today are virtually emission-free," the ad reads. "And that's a dramatic improvement from 30 years ago. So if you want to know what it really means to drive a clean car, look under the hood of every new car and light truck we make." The ads are driven in part by the growing popularity of hybrid gas-and-electric-powered cars, such as the Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape Hybrid, that have even lower fuel emissions and put pressure on other car manufacturers to offer hybrids as well.

    Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists has challenged the alliance's ad claims with a countercampaign that asserts the car manufacturers are not coming clean. Its ad also features a toddler in a car seat, but this one is holding a cigarette. "If today's cars are 'virtually emission-free' then so is this cigarette," the ad copy says. "Automakers are trying to deceive you on vehicle pollution claiming that autos manufactured today are 'virtually emission-free.' Seems they are ignoring the fact that new vehicles actually produce more global warming than they did 20 years ago."

    Significance: Any finding that the ad campaign is misleading will turn in large part on what is meant by "emission." The auto alliance points out that cars today emit 99% fewer of the smog-forming chemicals than those in the 1960s. The Union of Concerned Scientists concedes that the number of emissions per car is down, but it counters that there are many more cars on the road today contributing to air pollution and global warming than in the 1960s.