What do Spuds MacKenzie, Mercedes-Benz and the nuclear energy industry have in common?
Bad ads.At least, that was the conclusion by the Center For Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer lobby that handed out its annual awards last week for the most misleading advertisements of the past year.
The group calls its competition the "Harlan Page Hubbard Memorial Awards," which it says are named after the first advertising executive to use deceptive advertising on a national scale. Back in the 1890s, Hubbard concocted national ad campaigns for bottled potions that were advertised to cure everything from backaches to cancer.
Deception in advertising is still with us today. It continues to show up in advertisements for everything from suntan lotion to insurance companies.
The organization times the distribution of its specially made trophies of figures holding real lemons to coincide with the advertising industry's largest self-congratulatory show, the Clio Awards, which were also distributed in New York last week.
While thousands of advertisers and ad agency executives showed up at the Clios to accept their awards, not one showed up to pick up a "Hubbard" award. "We send Mailgrams to the winners each year," said Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the consumer organization. "None have ever shown up."
More than one group selects the worst ads. Sil-verglade said he looks to experts in 10 organizations - from the National Council on Alcoholism to the Center for Auto Safety - to select the "winners" in the individual categories.
Here's a category by category rundown for those selected as the most misleading ads of the past year:
-Alcoholic Beverages (selected by the National Council on Alcoholism):
The winner was Anheuser-Busch for its television advertisement that was aired during the Winter Olympics, featuring Spuds Mackenzie as a hockey goalie. The ad was cited not only because the commercials appeal to people under the legal drinking age but also because they associate drinking with sports. "Spuds is clearly designed to appeal to children as well as young adults," said Jean Kilbourne, board member of the National Council on Alcoholism. "He'd fit right in on Sesame Street."
-Automobiles (selected by the Center for Auto Safety):
Mercedes-Benz blew the competition off the road here for a TV commercial that showed an S-Series Mercedes-Benz whipping down the German Autobahn at 125 miles per hour. A spokesman for the Center for Auto Safety said that even on the Autobahn, German government officials have advised that cars not exceed 87 miles per hour.
-Energy (selected by the Safe Energy Communication Council):
The nuclear industry-funded group, U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, was picked for its TV ad that shows a barrel of oil - shaped like a hypodermic needle - shooting oil into a map of the United States. "America is hooked on foreign oil," the ad says. "But using more of our own energy resources, like coal and nuclear energy, helps us just say no to foreign oil."
Mary O'Driscoll, a spokeswoman for the Safe Energy Communication Council, said that the pro-nuclear commercial uses "scare tactics" to make its point.
-Tobacco (selected by the Coalition on Smoking):
R.J. Reynolds took the honors for what the coalition's group spokesman described as a, "brazen violation of practically every provision of even its own advertising code." The reference was to a print ad for Camel cigarettes that appeared in recent issues of several publications, including Rolling Stone and National Lampoon. The ad points out "smooth moves" for Camel smokers to make on the beach this summer, and it offers this advice: "Run into the water, grab someone and drag her back to the shore, as if you've saved her from drowning. The more she kicks and screams, the better."
-Health (selected by the National Women's Health Network):
The winner here was a TV commercial for the diet aid, Dexatrim, in which an actress says she takes the diet pill but, "I don't feel nervous or jittery." A spokesman for the health organization insists that Dexatrim's main ingredient, Phenyl-propanolamine, is "chemically close" to amphetamines - also known as "speed."
-Cosmetics (selected by the National Consumers League):
Revlon, maker of sun tan product Bain de So-leil, won for its TV and print ads the offer sun protections factors of 20, 25 and 30. "Consumers placing too much faith in Bain de Soleil's high sun protection factor numbers could well wind up spending more time than is safe in the sun," said Linda F. Golodner, executive director for the National Consumers League.
-Toys (selected by the Consumer Toy Group of Americans for Democratic Action):
The most misleading children's ad was one for a toy construction game called Zaks, which is made by toymaker Ohio Art. "Zaks simply can't be made to do the wild gyrations that appear in the commercial," said a spokesman for the group.
-Insurance (selected by Consumer Federation of America):
In an ad for National Benefit Life's "Security Life Plan," spokesman Dick Van Dyke promises "big dollar benefits" for a life insurance policy that costs only $3.95 per month. But the Consumer Federation argues that the benefits - which can total as little as $1,000 - aren't big at all.
-Airlines (selected by the Aviation Consumer Action Project):
TWA ran the year's most misleading airline ad, says the consumer group, with a print ad that promised a round-trip flight to London, hotel and car for $298. The real cost of the package, says the consumer group, is a minimum of $792. TWA is no longer running the ads.
-Food (selected by the Center for Science in the Public Interest):
The group say that National Pork Producers Council placed the most misleading food ad last year, with a TV commercial that called pork "the other white meat." Said a spokesman for CSPI, "Pork is high in fat and cholesterol and does not compare favorably to chicken."
Although the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been handing out these bad advertising awards for six years now, it has yet to be sued by an angered advertiser, said Silverglade. "When the truth is on our side," he said, "it's difficult for an advertiser to win a lawsuit."