GG van Rooyen: Truth in Advertising

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” Mark Twain reportedly said. It is true of stories, and even truer of advertising.

Advertising is not a subtle artform. In our global, connected world, holding an audience’s attention isn’t easy. Advertisers need to make big, bold statements that are easily understandable, even by couch potatoes with one eye on the television, the other on their smartphones.

The modern television commercial doesn’t allow for logical arguments and complex explanations. It’s too short for that. Moreover, if you want prevent viewers from changing the channel, there is one priority when creating an ad: make it entertaining. Commercials need to be entertaining first, and informative second. Issues such as “realism” and “truth” are hardly worth considering.

If you want to get your point across, you need to exaggerate for dramatic effect. You take a certain scenario, and then push the concept until becomes truly absurd.

Here is an example. The Axe deodorant brand is famous for showing how its products can transform even the most boring and unattractive young man into an Adonis. Just a small spray of Axe is enough to make women fall at his feet.

Are we to suppose that these ads are “true”? Does any man purchase Axe with the assumption that it will instantly cause every woman he encounters to lust after him?

Any reasonable viewer would understand that this is merely an exaggeration. Will it make you irresistible? No, but it will mask those other manly odours that women often find off-putting.

Why do I mention this? We’ll, Nissan US was recently rapped over the knuckles because the American Federal Trade Commission (FTC) decided that one of its commercials for the Frontier bakkie was misleading.

The ad showed a Frontier pushing a dune buggy up a dune that it was incapable of scaling. Because both vehicles were in fact hoisted up the dune with the aid of a cable, the FTC decided that the ad was misleading. This was despite the fact that the ad had a disclaimer stating: “Fictionalisation. Do not attempt.”

Importantly, though, this particular commercial was one of three ads that Nissan flighted. The first was shot very convincingly in the style of a news broadcast, and showed the Nissan rescuing a plane with malfunctioning landing gear. The second ad showed the bakkie charging down a snow slope in the style of a snowboard, performing impossible tricks along the way. The FTC did not have a problem with these two ads.

Why, then, was the dune buggy ad singled out? Was it perhaps because that particular scenario was preposterous, but not quite preposterous enough to instantly be identified as a hoax? A massive exaggeration of the argument is fine, apparently, but a slight exaggeration isn’t.

It’s an interesting issue, and one can understand the FTC’s position, to a certain extent. The other two ads were clearly absurd. The dune buggy ad, though… well, that one was just believable enough to potentially cause some confusion. Heaven forbid some new Frontier owner charges up a dune with the intention of rescuing a stuck buggy, and finds that his bakkie can’t even make it halfway up the slope.

To what extent should advertisers be allowed to exaggerate things in order to make a point, and when should they be chastised for misleading potential buyers?

Vehicle manufacturers, and by extension, their advertising agencies, have the unenviable task of selling increasingly complex machines in a quick and entertaining way. No wonder, then, that realism is often sacrificed in the process.

Yes, manufacturers should be held accountable, and shouldn’t be allowed to mislead buyers, but, as consumers, we also have a responsibility to educate ourselves. Any person who buys a bakkie under the false assumption that it can outclass a dune buggy in the desert, for example, probably shouldn’t venture into a dune field without proper supervision.

Thanks to the hyper-competitive free market, the truth is always being “massaged” to fit someone’s ends. Yes, we have the Consumer Protection Act, but our greatest defense lies in educating ourselves. Hopefully that’s where Leisure Wheels comes in. If you’re shopping around for a 4×4, give us a call. We’ll gladly help you in separating the truth from the fiction.