The Truth About Car Advertising

Frank Williams
by Frank Williams
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the truth about car advertising
Remember Joe Isuzu? In the late 80’s, the brand’s spokesman was an actor (David Leisure) playing a pathological liar who’d say anything to sell an Isuzu. He claimed the Trooper could carry “a symphony orchestra” or “hold every book in the Library of Congress.” The Impulse was “faster than a [catches a speeding bullet in his teeth]… well, you know.” While Joe’s commercials-– and for that matter, the Isuzu brand– are busy fading from the American automotive landscape, his spirit lives on. The main difference between Joe and no-Joe car ads: today's disclaimers are smaller. You have my word on it.

On second thought, look for yourself. Most automobile commercials include a small disclaimer like “closed course,” “professional driver,” “do not attempt” or some other CYA statement mandated by the company’s legal department. It’s there to protect them against ambulance chasers waiting for a buyer to injure themselves or (preferably) die when they try to make their vehicle do what it did in the commercial– even if that’s just driving around a corner. You have to wonder about a world where companies showcase an SUV driving off-road, or a sports car zooming through a road course, then feel obliged to tell the buyer “do not attempt” to do the same. Just what are we supposed to do with these vehicles?

The TV commercials for the new Mercedes GL-class are probably the best/worst example. The ads show the Alabama-built off-roader shrugging off the impact of a crash test sled, towing more than a Peterbilt can handle, hauling an entire vacation home full of stuff and tackling a slalom course so fast it sets the cones on fire (actually my first impression was the brakes were overheating so badly they ignited the cones). All this wouldn’t be too bad if it was presented Joe Isuzu-style, with humorous disclaimers. Instead, the word “fictionalization” appears in letters small enough to qualify as a DMV eye test, flashing by so fast it could serve as an Evelyn Wood final exam.

Autodisclaimermania reminds of a five-year old who lies about breaking a lamp but thinks it’s OK (and he won’t be caught) because his fingers were crossed. When it comes to portraying extreme performance capabilities that might not actually be, you know, possible, or, equally worrying, destroying the vehicle involved in the display, truck ads are particularly notable offenders. Could someone explain what “underbody digitally modified” meant in the Ford truck ad showing an F-150 crushed between two bulldozers? Did the frame crumple like a beer can against a frat boy’s forehead? Why won’t they show us what really happened? Or tell us they actually crushed four trucks to make that commercial?

Then there’s a special category of ads operating so far outside the realm of reality they should be classified as novelization. These ads try to sell us on a vehicle’s ability to cater to/create a particular “lifestyle,” or seek to fill us with warm fuzzies (WF) for a company building vehicles that can’t stand evaluation on their own or relative merits. Here’s a simple question: how many Americans actually own a kayak? How many go rock climbing? Not as many as own SUV’s. But that doesn’t stop their manufacturers from selling their lumbering land yachts as gateways to the great outdoors. Nissan may urge potential owners to “tell better stories,” but it would be hard come up with more imaginative fiction that their lifestyle vignettes.

The poster child for the WF concept is Ford’s “Bold Moves” campaign. The Coca-Cola style ads show a quick cut montage of bold Americans doing courageous and noble things– from a teenager getting his first driver's license to a woman with breast cancer entering the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's Race for the Cure. So… where are the cars? They don’t appear until the ad’s closing seconds. What does that tell us about Ford vehicles? Either a great deal (Ford’s ethics, spirit and community service) or nothing (), depending on whether or not you got paid to throw around words like “target demographic.”

Of course, Ford’s not the only one inviting customers to share their highly selective alternate reality. Toyota touts their “hybrid synergy” but neglects to mention its profitable flotilla of gas-guzzling Tundras and Sequoias. GM brags how many of its cars get better than 30 MPG in highway driving, but fails to disclose that their whips are a lot less efficient around town, and that their overall fleet hews closely to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy legislation. (Unlike BMW.)

You have to wonder who the car makers and their advertising lackeys think they’re fooling. They aren’t fooling me and I doubt they’re fooling you. The truth is they, like Joe Isuzu, they are only fooling themselves. And if I’m lying, may lightning strike my computer.

Frank Williams
Frank Williams

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  • Optic Optic on Jun 21, 2006

    I think the ads that skirt the truth, like showing SUVs climbing mountains and taking people kayaking (or, for that matter, guys drinking Budweiser and getting chatted up by beautiful women) are within the bounds of truthiness, and if you're fooled by that it's your own damn fault. But that ad with the F-150 and the bulldozers sure fooled me. I have no interest in trucks, but my reaction was "wow that looks pretty good!" I'm not sure how exactly a legal distinction can be made, but that looks like straight-up lying to me.

  • Allderblob Allderblob on Jul 16, 2006

    The ALLDERBLOB came across this post as hit number 50 or so in a google search of the phrase "full car advertising." We didn't know what "full car advertising" meant, or where it would lead, but when you google it (without the quotes) you get a hell of a lot of hits. Fact is, according to our site stats, it's a phrase that led someone to us, and we're always interested in how that happens. But to tell the truth, we never found the link to our site from within those 80,600,000 google hits. What stopped us was your promising title. "The Truth about Car Advertising" is a pretty potent come-on, as you gotta realize. It's actually a brilliant and complex phrase, an oxymoron or something--you know, a phrase that contains within it a contradiction or a denial of its central premise. But in reading your editorial we realized you have not realized the full promise of the title you chose. It's as if you did not grasp the cognitive dissonance brought on by placing the words "truth" and "car advertising" in such close proximity. Or maybe it's just that The ALLDERBLOB takes a different position on car ads than your editorial does. We think car ads tell lies by definition, and their central lie is so pernicious, so destructive to society at large, so, well, evil, that there is no alternative in a society that wishes to defend itself and protect its future prosperity but to ban them outright.

  • Namesakeone Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. A light truck coming from Ford. We have never seen anything like it. (This is me trying to sound like I'm excited.)
  • Jkross22 I remember when cars came from the factory without looking like it had a fart can exhaust installed. This is not an attractive car. The paint looks great, but the design, wheels and interior look off-lease Infiniti. I'll guess: 6 grand down, $1000/month with 7.5k miles/year.
  • FreedMike Newsflash: your car may not get the mileage it is rated for, and it doesn't matter whether it's powered by petroleum or electricity. Things like elevation, your driving habits, and load make range vary. And you didn't even have to spend any money with Consumer Reports to figure that out. Thank me anytime.
  • VoGhost This is typical 'imaginary tiger urinating on the other company's logo' one-upmanship we have seen for decades in the pickup market. Ford -- like all carmakers now -- is embarrassed at how weak their performance models look next to the CyberTruck and its 2.6 second 0-60. So they will do all they can to approach the Tesla's performance.
  • ToolGuy More powerful than a locomotive