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.

About Larry M. Elkin 553 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

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