At the Automotive News Marketing Seminar in Los Angeles this month, Steve Center, American Honda Motor Co.'s vice president of marketing operations, cautioned automakers to avoid letting auto ads become as negative as political ads.
Center was particularly critical of comparative advertising. He said any manufacturer can manipulate statistics to show a comparative advantage over the competition.
That's true. Brand building is better than trying to undermine the competition. And, of course, no one wants automotive advertising to slip into the slimy muck that has swallowed so much of today's political advertising in the United States.
But sometimes comparisons are useful. For example, consumers may benefit from knowing the relative fuel economy and safety ratings of vehicles on their shopping lists. Sometimes, comparing other product features is helpful, too, though the battle over which minivan had the most cupholders is an example of comparative excess that regrettably seemed to influence product design.
Automakers have long used a variety of media and advertising techniques, including comparative ads, to make their products stand out. That's as it should be.
In our society, advertisers enjoy wide latitude to tout products and services responsibly, thanks to the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. There are government watchdog agencies charged with keeping advertisers honest.
But in our market economy, it is the consumer who ultimately determines the value and efficacy of advertising.