WASHINGTON - Thou shalt not hype thy vehicle crash test scores.
That's what the Clinton administration is telling automotive ad people - even though it might seem like commanding birds not to fly and fish not to swim.
'It's become a marketing frenzy out there,' said Dr. Ricardo Martinez, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In late June Martinez quietly sent to automaker associations a list of guidelines - or commandments, if you will - on how crash test results should and should not be described in advertisements. NHTSA also issued the directive to advertising agencies.
The effort apparently is NHTSA's first attempt to influence the content of automotive advertising. And although the guidelines had the tone of the 10 Commandments, Martinez has little recourse other than the bully pulpit to punish sinners.
IT DOESN'T ADD UP
'One commercial says they've got 19 stars. Well, you can't add them up,' said Martinez, in a bit of an exaggeration of his own. The offending Audi spot that led to the guidelines actually claimed only '10 stars.'
In the government's crash tests, called the New Car Assessment Program, vehicles are given scores of one to five stars for the amount of protection they provide in frontal crashes and side impacts. The results are distributed for consumer information.
In theory, a vehicle could get up to five stars in each of four test measurements: for the driver in a frontal crash, for the passenger in a frontal crash, for the driver in a side impact and for a rear passenger in a side impact.
SHOW ALL YOUR STARS
Besides advising against adding scores together, NHTSA is asking that if a score for one position is reported, then the scores for other seating positions also should be given.
In other words, NHTSA says: Don't just tout the five stars your vehicle got in one category while failing to mention that it earned, say, one or two stars in another category.
While Ford Motor Co. has been the most vigorous advertiser of crash test results, it was a recent novel ad for the Audi A8 that spurred NHTSA to write the guidelines, agency officials said.
In the spot, a chorus of crash dummies sings the praises of the A8 and a voice-over says that the car got 10 stars in crash tests.
Later, on-screen text explains the car earned five stars each for driver and passenger in the frontal test.
Richard Morgan, crash program group leader, said, 'It was a tremendous ad,' and he doesn't believe there was an intention to deceive consumers, but agency officials were concerned nonetheless. He acknowledged that the guidelines are just that, and NHTSA has no authority to enforce them.
Audi of America spokesman Steve Keyes said NHTSA has a right to yell 'foul' if a manufacturer makes misleading statements, but he doesn't think the Audi spot did. He said that by the time the company became aware of NHTSA's concern, the TV spot already had run its course, but print ads were revised to delete references to 10 stars.
Martinez, recalling past industry opposition to government crash testing, is happy about the turnaround in attitude but believes manufacturers need to guard against overstatement.
Said Martinez: '(Crash tests) are a major marketing tool now.'