WASHINGTON -- Volkswagen's clean diesel wasn't the technological marvel it appeared to be.
But the marketing campaign for it was a juggernaut, helping to move more than half a million diesel vehicles over seven years with a combination of Super Bowl commercials, social-media messages and print advertising costing tens of millions of dollars.
That campaign now represents a new avenue of attack against the company after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against Volkswagen Group of America, alleging that the automaker falsely advertised the vehicles as environmentally friendly and caused "billions of dollars in injury" to consumers.
The suit, filed last week in federal court in San Francisco, adds to the mountain of litigation facing VW in the wake of its diesel emissions scandal, including more than 500 civil lawsuits filed by consumers against VW, along with some by U.S. states and a Justice Department lawsuit that seeks as much as $46 billion.
The FTC complaint, which catalogs many of the ads VW ran from 2008 through late last year, suggests that VW manipulated consumers' emotions to get them to embrace a product that didn't meet federal emissions standards.
"Volkswagen USA's marketers studied their targets' psychology, concluding that such consumers "rationalize themselves out of their aspirations and justify buying lesser cars under the guise of being responsible,'" the FTC said.
The deception continued even after evidence began to emerge that the diesel vehicles exceeded U.S. limits on oxides of nitrogen emissions, according to the complaint.
The FTC suit seeks compensation for U.S. consumers who bought a polluting vehicle and an injunction to prevent future similar conduct by VW.
VW spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan said the automaker has received the FTC complaint and "continues to cooperate" with all U.S. regulators.