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Taking Aim at the Bad Ads : Group Says Fine Print Belies What Products Tout


Tiny print carrying the bad news in ads--virtually hidden at the bottom of the TV screen or page--was a favorite marketing ploy used by many of the nation's top advertisers last year.

That is the conclusion of the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, which handed out its ninth annual "Lemon Awards" on Thursday for "Worst Ads of 1993." The group said ads carrying tiny print ranked among the most misleading and irresponsible of the year.

Bold promises in many of the cited ads were often contradicted by their small print, the center said. Among the biggest culprits, it said, were American Honda, Northwest Airlines and Hasbro.

"Small print cannot justify an otherwise misleading claim," said Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the center. "The only way to read the small print in most TV spots is to videotape it, freeze-frame it and look at it with a magnifying glass."

The center's bad ad awards are a public relations nightmare for most companies, which frequently face days of embarrassment following the citations. The privately funded center, started on a shoestring in 1971, has amassed considerable political power over the years, helped in part by the publicity from its Lemon Awards.

But the center itself is also the subject of criticism. Some have accused the group of trying to garner publicity--as well as donations--by hosting this ad-bashing ceremony each year. Center executives say the best way to keep a close watch on advertisers would be to name a consumer advocate to fill a soon-to-open commissioner's post on the Federal Trade Commission. But those interests might appear to be somewhat self-serving, because group co-founder Michael Jacobson has previously stated an interest in that post.

Executives at the center insist that they are only looking out for what's best for consumers. And at Thursday's ceremony in Washington, officials said that too many consumers are being misled by new forms of deceptive advertising.

For help in selecting the worst offenders, the center sought the aid of several consumer groups that specialize in specific areas.

Officials at the center were particularly irked by a Honda car lease spot that they say seduces viewers with a promise that it is "designed to improve cash flow." While the ad promises payments of $199 a month, the small print notes charges that add up to much more.

"Instead of 'designed to improve cash flow,' the slogan for the lease ads should be 'designed to obscure the true cost,' " said Debra Barclay, communications director for the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group that selected the Honda ad as the most offensive.

Honda denies that the commercial is misleading. "Obviously, no one is going to lease a car based on a single TV spot," spokesman Mike Spencer said. "The ad meets all legal, ethical and moral requirements."

Only the tiniest print in an ad for Northwest Airlines revealed that the promised "incredible vacation fares"--which appeared to be offered over a three-month period--were actually available for just 15 days.

"The 'incredible vacation fares' are so incredible that for most would-be travelers, they don't exist," said Geraldine Frankoski, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a Washington-based group affiliated with consumer activist Ralph Nader, which selected the offending ad.

Northwest insists that it wasn't loose with the facts. "We don't feel that is misleading," spokesman Jim Faulkner said.

The center said an ad by toy maker Hasbro is especially misleading because it targets a vulnerable group--children. The TV commercial depicts toy cowboys in a snazzy Western town--but the toy town is not for sale.

"The toy is targeted to children who are too young to read," pointed out Bill Wood, consumer advocate for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which selected the ad.

For its part, Hasbro says the TV spot is perfectly clear. The toy is sold via a toll-free phone number. And the company has only received two calls from consumers who think the toy Western town is for sale, said Wayne Charness, vice president at Hasbro.

Aside from too much small print, the center found lots of other misleading statements in ads over the past year. Two of its biggest industry culprits were makers of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products.

It was harshly critical of a print ad for Kool cigarettes that features an attractive woman in high heels next to the headline "Totally Kool." Center officials said the ad implies that smoking can somehow add to sexual attraction.

But a spokesman for Brown & Williamson, maker of Kool cigarettes, said the ad "conforms to the code in every way."

The center also accused brewer Anheuser-Busch of violating the beer industry's own code that prohibits ads showing beer being consumed illegally. In an ad for its Bud Light brand, a man is shown riding in the back of a limousine while holding an open bottle of Bud Light. But having an open container in a moving vehicle is illegal in some states.

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