That collision course, if it draws in the Federal Trade Commission, could end up costing Volvo $10,000 in fines for every time it runs the commercial.
VOLVO 850 VS. BMW 328I
The commercial, from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, broke in April and is a dramatization of Volvo's 850 turbo Sportswagon accelerating faster than BMW's 328i sedan in a zero-to-60-miles-per-hour test.
BMW of North America claims Volvo's testing is invalid and conflicts with BMW's own tests and those of independent outsiders, including automotive buff books.
The charges raise the specter of a 1990 commercial in which a reinforced Volvo was the only car not crushed by a "monster truck" rolling over a line of vehicles. The FTC penalized the automaker for using deceptive advertising methods and the scandal led to the dismissal of Volvo's agency at the time-Scali, McCabe, Sloves, New York.
Volvo denies BMW's allegations.
"BMW came here to us calling the ad deceptive, misleading, inaccurate and biased," Bob Austin, Volvo communications director, told Advertising Age last week. "We disagree wholeheartedly."
He said BMW has filed a complaint about the advertising with the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Neither BMW nor NAD would confirm or discuss such a complaint.
Mr. Austin also said that BMW had its media buying service, DeWitt Media, New York, ask TV networks to yank the Volvo spot.
"I have copies of letters from all the networks asking what I think," he said.
DeWitt did not return phone calls, but NBC confirmed it has the spot under review.
BMW did send Ad Age a tersely worded statement saying it regularly tests its own vehicles and those of competitors.
"Our internal test data, as well as those of other independent sources, conflict with the results touted in the current Volvo television commercial. As a result, BMW is working with Volvo to resolve this matter," the statement said.
Messner is standing by the Volvo spot, which was shot in 15- and 30-second versions.
Jay Durante, the agency's partner-account director on Volvo, said that "our position is we developed advertising to explain the results of independent research that found the Volvo 850 turbo Sportswagon was faster than the 328i in acceleration. The results are quite unexpected, which is the whole point of the commercial."
In addition to the zero-to-60 claim, Mr. Durante said, the :30 also says the Volvo wins in acceleration over a quarter-mile.
Mr. Durante noted that Volvo hired free-lance auto journalist Peter Albrecht to conduct the test and brought his test results to the agency.
Volvo ads usually focus on safety but have emphasized performance in the past year. Actor Donald Sutherland again does the voice-over in the spot, saying: "The ultimate driving machine, outdone by a Volvo. Is nothing sacred?"
TEST METHODS DISPUTED
BMW is apparently upset with Volvo's testing methods. The German carmaker is said to be upset that the Swedish car's engine may have benefited because it was more broken in-with 9,150 miles on the odometer-than the 328i, with 1,091 miles. The BMW's transmission was tested in economy mode, while the Volvo was in sport mode. The Volvo was driven 12 times vs. BMW's five. None of these qualifiers was mentioned in the Volvo commercial.
Mr. Albrecht's name appears in the Volvo ad. The former auto engineer, now based in Costa Mesa, Calif., said he didn't need to drive the BMW more than five times because he knew it wouldn't go faster.
"Because the turbo is more sensitive, you have to try various things to get it to go faster," he said. Mr. Albrecht also is a contributing editor to AutoWeek, a sister publication of Ad Age.
He said he used the fastest time for each vehicle. Although not mentioned in the ad, Volvo beat the BMW by three-10ths of a second.
Mr. Albrecht said both cars had automatic transmissions but admitted the BMW's transmission was in "drive" mode for fuel economy, while the Volvo was in the "sport" mode.
"BMW will say our car wasn't driven in sport mode...but it doesn't matter what mode you're in if you tromp on the gas pedal," Mr. Albrecht said.
He also said a car's mileage wouldn't affect results. Volvo has more horsepower and more torque than the BMW, Mr. Albrecht said.
BMW did its own testing in February-a month before Volvo-using a well-known testing company, Automotive Marketing Consultants. It tested zero-to-60 acceleration of the 328i vs. Volvo 850 turbo sedan (not the wagon shown in the ad) and two other competitors.
According to a report obtained by Ad Age, Automotive Marketing Consultants tested each vehicle 24 times and used the average of the fastest 16 runs. Each vehicle's odometer had the same mileage and each was driven in the highest gear available.
The 328i's average was 7.1 seconds compared with 7.38 seconds for the Volvo in that test. BMW's average was the fastest of all four vehicles and none of Volvo's single times beat any of BMW's.
The report does say Volvo beat BMW in a quarter-mile test.
Mr. Austin said he's confident Volvo will prevail against any FTC scrutiny.
The FTC can't comment on whether a complaint from the outside has been filed. But if FTC investigators determine Volvo violated a 1992 consent agreement over the "monster truck" case, Volvo could face civil fines of up to $10,000 for each time the commercial aired.
The FTC charged Volvo with using deceptive advertising methods in the "monster truck" case and levied fines of $150,000 against both the carmaker and Scali. Because it was a consent agreement, Volvo did not admit guilt.
Volvo tried to force Scali to repay the $250,000 production costs of the ad before firing the agency in 1991.