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Disclaimers For Idiots And Bureaucrats

Just because television has long been called “the idiot box,” does that mean anyone viewing a screen is, by default, an idiot?

The Federal Trade Commission evidently thinks so.

In the run-up to the Super Bowl, which remains a red-letter evening for TV advertisements, the FTC singled out a Nissan ad for challenge. The spot is shot in a style meant to suggest an amateur video catching a candid moment; it shows a dune buggy stuck on a sand dune being rescued by a Nissan Frontier pickup truck, which pushes the dune buggy the rest of the way up a steep incline.

Though the style suggests a video uploaded to the Internet by a bystander, Nissan did include a disclaimer at the beginning of the ad in small print, which says, “Fictionalization. Do Not Attempt.” This was not enough for the FTC, it seems. The agency cited the automaker for making it seem that the Frontier can do things it cannot actually do.

“Special effects in ads can be entertaining, but advertisers can’t use them to misrepresent what a product can do,” said Jessica Rich, the director of the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection, according to Bloomberg. Has she considered the distinction between the words “fictionalization” and “representation?” Beats me.

But the FTC has gallantly stepped in to prevent all those dune buggy owners from wasting their money on pickup trucks. It’s probably just as well, since if their buggies are all stuck, how would they go retrieve their backup trucks in the first place?

Considering the millions of dollars automakers alone spend on Super Bowl spots, it is unsurprising that they have evidently taken care to spell out just what viewers should and should not expect from the advertised vehicles. “Closed course, do not attempt” is an almost sure bet in most car commercials, but some Super Bowl ads went further and got more specific.

Hyundai’s ad warns us that we should not attempt the professional driver’s closed-course trick of evading land mines in the road. Short of traveling on IED-laced roads in Iraq, or accompanying Lebanese politicians targeted by Syrian-backed assassins, it is unlikely most of us would ever be tempted, let alone know how to attempt this particular stunt. The commercial also reminds us, during a “fantasy sequence” that “cars can’t jump over buses.” Thanks, Hyundai.

Audi imagines a world of Doberman- Chihuahua mixes, but cautions that a child on a big-wheel trying to outrace them was an image created by a professional stuntman. (Stuntkid?) Granted, I might injure myself just squeezing into a big-wheel, though it’s the tricycle would come out worse than I would from the attempt. But running from Doberhuahuas? I doubt many people are going to give it a shot. The end of the same ad shows a red Audi driving serenely down a highway, with the disclaimer: “Professional driver. Closed course. Do not attempt.” Now I’m no longer clear exactly what Audi expects me to do with the car. Use it as a flowerpot?

Honda’s ad told me up front: “Prototype shown with options. Production model may vary.” Next time I buy a car, I am definitely shelling out for the optional Muppets.

The Jaguar F-Type Coupe, despite selling its ad using the tagline “Good to be bad,” doesn’t want us to be too bad. It cautions viewers to “Always obey speed limits.” I guess even bad guys follow traffic laws. The car can be equipped with a 550-horsepower supercharged V8 that has a top speed of 186 mph. Where is that legal? I would like to know so I won’t drive there. I suppose the people who pay $99,000 for the supercharged model just want to take it down to the Safeway on the corner while pretending to be an action film villain.

Kia’s K900 ad, a callback to “The Matrix” featuring Lawrence Fishburne, comes with the standard closed course notice, and also advises, “Always drive safely and obey all traffic laws.” Nothing to argue with, but when did it become mandatory that all new-car ads include a public service announcement? The ad doesn’t answer the real question, though: Does Fishburne do his own singing? (I can only hope so, though the answer is surprisingly hard to track down. Otherwise, for the sake of Kia and Fishburne, I hope the FTC is less concerned with misrepresenting the capabilities of a fictional character than a car.)

It seems that auto retailers get a pass. CarMax didn’t bother warning viewers that bears are unlikely to slow clap and that statues are incapable of it. I hope no car buyers are too disappointed.

So thank you to the FTC for ensuring that advertisers go out of their way to ensure no one watching the idiot box is in any way confused. Now if only the agency could do something about how many buttons are on those pesky remotes.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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