WASHINGTON -- An environmental group has persuaded nearly 23,000 people to file complaints with the government against automobile industry advertising that claims new cars and trucks are "virtually emission-free."
The ads are false and misleading, the Union of Concerned Scientists contends.
Using mailings and its Web site, the group encouraged people to complain to the Federal Trade Commission, which has authority to enforce prohibitions against false and misleading advertising.
Generally, if the FTC finds merit in complaints about ads, it seeks a consent agreement with the advertiser to stop false claims. The agency also can seek court injunctions or impose civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation, FTC spokesman Mitch Katz says.
Katz cites as an example ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken, which suggested that eating its chicken was a way to lose weight and to be healthier. In an agreement last June, KFC Corp. agreed to stop making those claims.
The auto ads in question are sponsored by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents the Big 3 and six import-brand automakers.
The ads appear in publications aimed at Washington policy makers and in some regional and national media, including Automotive News. The ads say new vehicles are "99 percent cleaner" than vehicles of 30 years ago.
The ads are truthful, and the alliance will not stop using them, says alliance spokesman Eron Shosteck.
He says they refer to the pollutants regulated by federal law, mainly hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen, both of which contribute to lung-damaging smog. And a vehicle that meets the latest federal clean-air rules, known as Tier 2, is 99 percent free of those pollutants, Shosteck says.
Carbon dioxide, both a byproduct of burning fuel and a part of the atmosphere, is not a regulated pollutant, but its accumulation in the air is thought to be a cause of global warming.
Vehicles emit lots of carbon dioxide - more than 1.3 billion tons this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists says.
David Friedman, research director for the scientists' organization, says the industry ads claim vehicles are "virtually emission-free," not "virtually pollution-free." So, at the very least, the alliance should print corrections or retractions about greenhouse gas emissions, he contends.
"The auto alliance must think that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will start to believe it," Friedman says.
His organization also objects to the claims about regulated pollutants.
"They are trying to reframe the debate on vehicle pollution, to plant a stake in the ground and say, 'It's done,'" Friedman says. But 60 percent of Americans still live where air does not meet standards for smog, he notes.
He added: "That's why we felt we had to respond."
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