The Volvo car manufacturers in 1990, following a monster truck rally in Vermont, devised an advertisement to show the strength and safety of the Volvo station wagon. The actual event of 1990 was one whereby a monster truck which because of its size was given the name “Bear Foot”, rode atop of the roofs of cars lined in its path, one of which was a Volvo. The oversized truck crushed all the other vehicles in its way, except the Volvo wagon and thus the new concept of the car’s added strength was adopted.
Immediate production of an advertisement to serve as a dramatization of the stunt in the rally in both print and television ads began. The Volvo Car Company chose the advertising agencies of Scali, Mc Cabe and Solves. The production crew, in an effort to enable the Volvo car to withstand the number of takes in the required filming of the advertisement, reinforced the roof of the Volvo with lumber and steel, and partially sawed through the roof support of the other cars. The advertisement made no mention of the fact that it was a reenactment of the events of 1990, and thus leading consumers to believe that it was the actual stunt. This was Volvo’s big mistake.
This act sparked interest in the attorney general of Texas, who concluded that the cars were rigged and subsequently charged Volvo with consumer fraud. Although engineers in their research determined that the Volvo car could withstand the weight of a five ton truck and that the advertisement was not misleading, the Volvo car company quickly settled the lawsuit, reimbursed the state of Texas for its legal fees and investigation expenses. As well they ran corrective ads in which the company stated they were ignorant of the alterations made to the vehicle in the filming of the ad; however they justified the need for it by saying it was necessary for the filming of the commercial.
Was Volvo’s rigging of the station wagon unethical? Or was it ethical? Was there a real need to reinforce the vehicle for the filming in the advertisement? Why wasn’t there a message informing consumers that the scene was a dramatization? Was the car company trying to depict a false image of their vehicle? Was the response of the car company after claims of deception justifiable? Was there a need for legal action by the state? How does ethical theory treat such an act? Is this a case of deceptive advertising?
Volvo’s advertising message in October 1990, of a Volvo station wagon’s strength and safety, is a form of deceptive advertising. It can also be said that Volvo’s behavior was unethical. Deception is morally objectionable since the consumer is not provided with adequate information necessary to make a sound decision. According to John Boatright “Deception occurs when a false belief, which an advertisement either creates or takes advantage of, substantially interferes with the ability of people to make rational consumer choices.” There are several theories that can be used to prove Volvo’s unethical behavior. They are, the Due Care Theory; regarding the problem of foreseeable misuse, the Triple Font Theory and the Strict Liability Theory.
One question that arises in the due care theory is whether manufacturers have an obligation to ensure that a product is safe to use as intended or to anticipate all the conditions under which injury could occur. Yes, they do! For example, the driver of a 1963 Chevy Corvair was severely injured in a head-on collision when the steering wheel column was a rigid shaft that extended to the front end of the car. Although this design did not cause the accident, the victim claimed that his injuries were created as a result of it. General Motors contended that its cars were intended to be used for driving on streets and highways and not for colliding with other objects.
Consequently, it had no obligation to make them safe for this latter purpose. A U.S. court of appeals held, however, that due care includes a duty to design the product so that it will fairly meet any emergency of use which can reasonably be anticipated. Thus as in the case of “Volvo’s “Bear Foot” Misstep’, the attorney general of Texas, had sufficient grounds to begin and investigation into the advertisement, that subsequently confirmed that the car was rigged. Leading to the case against Volvo for consumer fraud.
If however, a consumer had misused the Volvo station wagon like in the above example Volvo would have been liable, by the courts. In the end, Volvo quickly settled the suit ran corrective ads and by reimbursing the state for expenses incurred. This proves that the company was guilty of deception. Their mistake was not revealing to consumers that the ad was not an actual demonstration but a dramatization of the event in Vermont.
Employment of the Triple Font Theory shows:
The Act: Monster truck riding atop the roofs of cars lined up in its path
The Intention: to deceive consumers by giving a false image of the strength and safety of the vehicle
The Circumstance: reinforced the roof of the Volvo with lumber and steel and partially sawed through the roof supports of the other cars.
While the act is good, the intention is morally wrong. Deception in any form adds to the false representation of a product or service and is thus unethical. The circumstances do not justify the means and one can therefore conclude that the advertisement was unethical on the part of Volvo.
Volvo’s monster truck advertisement attempts to recreate an actual event and is not misleading n its message. According to the Principle of Double Effect, an action can be performed legitimately with one or more evil or indifferent effects, as long as at least one good effect and the fulfillment of four conditions exist.
The action in this situation is creating the advertisement and is indifferent. The good effect is its successful display of the strength of Volvo cars. The evil effect is the use of a reinforced car in the production of the ad.
Here, the good effect is not obtained through or by means of the evil effect. Using a reinforced car does not show the strength of a Volvo and was not intended to mislead its audience. However, it was tolerated as practical means of producing the ad.
This reinforcement is justified because it is practical and not deceptive. Reinforcing the car simply makes certain that the same outcome as in the actual rally reoccurs. It cannot be labeled as deceptive advertising, because it does not lead customers to make purchasing decisions based on false information. – because shows that the car can actually withstand the weight displayed – Certainly, by the Principle of Double Effect, Volvo did not act unethically.
In conclusion the Volvo car company’s act can be seen as both ethical and unethical. Through the different reasons used, the justification of the act can be seen, whilst claims of deception and consumer fraud can be made. However, when we examine the definition of deceptive advertising, which says “Deception occurs when a false belief, which an advertisement either creates or takes advantage of, substantially interferes with the ability of people to make rational consumer choices”, we came to the conclusion that Volvo’s act was ethical.
Yes the car company used reinforcements when making the ad, but it was not to create a false belief. As was stated before engineers, through research, assured the company that the roof of the car could withstand a five ton truck. Thus, consumers were not being fooled into believing something that was not true. The rigging was only to facilitate the production of the advertisement, as well cut the costs in the creation of it.
It should be noted however, that it was not the first time that Volvo and Scali, Mc Cabe, Solves team had been accused of producing questionable advertisements. Only two decades before an ad used to demonstrate the strength of the vehicles were seen as being deceptive because of the use of supporting mechanisms in the filming of the commercials. One has to wonder now if Volvo is really learning from past experiences and question why they made the same mistake with the “Bear Foot” versus the Volvo wagon advertisement.
We as consumers must sit back and wonder the next time we see a Volvo ad or any other advertisement for that matter, whereby a company boasts of its products superior strength, safety and reliability- “is that real?”