Dishonest GM commercial has a run-in with the law

GM running dishonest, misleading commercials is practically a dog-bites-man story, too commonplace to warrant news coverage.

This time they got caught.

But this time, it’s man bites dog. Because this time, they got caught.

And they got caught because of where they tried to run it.

The UK Advertising Authority has just banned a Chevrolet Volt commercial for making ridiculously misleading claims about its battery mileage.

A Volt by any other name…

Literally speaking, it wasn’t a Chevy Volt commercial.

GM’s $659 million deal to put the Chevrolet bowtie on the back of soccer team Manchester Union’s uniform jerseys notwithstanding, GM doesn’t sell Chevrolets anywhere in Europe. And that includes the British Isles.

There, the same car — but with the driver’s seat on the right — is rebadged as the Vauxhall Ampera. On the mainland — with the driver’s seat on the left — it’s the Opel Ampera.

But whatever you call the car, Britain’s official advertising regulatory authority called its commercial misleading.

They ‘forgot’ the engine

“For carbon-conscious drivers, the advert for an electric car with an impressive 360-mile range seemed too good to be true,” reports the Daily Mail. “Unfortunately, it appears it was, as the real range of the electric batteries in the Vauxhall Ampera is a rather more modest 50 miles. And to go beyond that, it relies on help from a somewhat less green source – a petrol engine.”

But as far as the car’s manufacturers were concerned, that small gasoline engine they put in their Volts (or Amperas) for when the battery went flat — after only about 50 miles — didn’t exist.

Having the gasoline engine running to charge up the battery is what GM euphemistically calls “range extender mode.”

Pictures trump words

It’s an axiom of advertising that consumers pay more attention to, and receive more communication from, pictures than words. And the banned commercial’s video screams “electric.”

It starts with a closeup of the car’s charging cord being plugged in.

It shows the car end of the charging cord being unplugged.

It shows electric headlamps coming on.

It shows a closeup of an instrument panel, whose biggest feature is a large meter prominently labeled “Battery Power.”

One scene shows a power line pylon in the background.

A super claims its range is 360 miles.

The voice-over concludes, “Driving electricity further.”

Now who would have thought it was a long-range, all-electric car from just that?

Not the United Kingdom’s advertising watchdog, whose order banning the spot declared:

We considered that throughout the ad the emphasis was on the fact that the car was being driven electrically, and that most viewers would not understand that the car was in some circumstances being powered by electricity generated with a petrol engine. The ad promoted an innovative product which many viewers would not immediately understand and we therefore considered that it would need to explicitly state that the car had a petrol engine. Because it did not clearly explain how the vehicle worked in extended-range mode, we concluded that the ad was misleading.

GM’s lawyers did write a disclaimer that appears in tiny type as part of the end title saying, “Comparison based on electric vehicles and extended range electric vehicles driven electrically at all times, even when an additional power source is generating electricity.”

But the ASA’s ruling, writes The, is all the more justified because “[t]he ASA does not parse an ad through the eyes of a lawyer, or through the eyes of GM apologists and amateur spinmeisters. The ASA sees it through the eyes of the ad’s target, the average consumer. That consumer is being fooled.”

A serial offender

Of course, this is far from the first time that GM tried to put the con in consumer advertising. It’s just the first time the authorities caught them at it.

A Volt commercial called “Just the Facts,” for example, completely ignored them, implying that the battery fires that made them change their product didn’t exist, exaggerating the importance of some run-of-the-mill certifications and industry awards, and — oh, yes — grossly overstating the Volt’s “extended range.”

A corporate commercial boasted that GM, having fallen, was now “back up” — this when its U.S. sales, market share and stock prices were all markedly down.

In 2010, then-CEO Ed Whitacre starred in a standup spot claiming that GM had repaid its government loans ahead of schedule when 87% of the balance was still owing.

In March of this year, an owner testimonial spot claimed that the Volt could save “a crapload of money.”

It can’t.

Bloomberg News reported that, “[t]he Volt’s cost of ownership matches the average car when including the $7,500 U.S. tax incentive and gasoline fuel savings.”

How did they know this?

A month ago, Tony Posawatz, who was Volt line director until his (forced?) early retirement for saying this, told them so.

What a difference a hemisphere makes

So how come GM gets away with all this lying in the United States but gets rightly called to justice in the United Kingdom?

Well, the it’s not the British government that’s their biggest shareholder.