VOLVO SPEEDS INTO TROUBLE; PM BASHING

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The one lesson we'd have thought Volvo Cars of North America would have carried away from the monster truck ad scandal of 1990 is not to take unnecessary risks with its ad claims-and, consequently, its consumer image.

Yet the automaker now finds itself in the middle of another flap, this time over a commercial showing Volvo's 850 turbo Sportswagon going from zero-to-60 in less time than a BMW 328i. BMW, not surprising-ly, claims the spot is misleading and inaccurate.

Whether Volvo or BMW knows best how to test acceleration isn't for us to decide. What's odd is that Volvo-a marketer of quality products-would once again jeopardize its brand image by making an eye-popping comparative claim based on a test the results of which could so easily be called into question.

As it tries to move beyond its safety image and toward a performance-based positioning, a dramatization of a Volvo beating a BMW in a head-to-head race (not the way it happened in the test) clearly makes a powerful statement. But there are dozens of ways Volvo could have turned a spotlight on performance without steering into the gray territory of comparative ad claims. It took a long time for Volvo to regain consumer trust and repolish its image after the monster truck fiasco. It seems to us the risk in this case outweighed the potential rewards.

Volvo should have known better.

Venting a little rage at Philip Morris USA may be good therapy for ad industry groups, but we hope they can move beyond that soon.

It's plain there is a sense of betrayal because PM is encouraging the tobacco industry to accept limited new government curbs on marketing rather than fight on for First Amendment principles. It bubbled over among the rank-and-file at the American Advertising Federation's an-nual meeting this month, where a delegate was cheered for delivering a tongue-lashing to PM USA's director of public affairs, David Laufer.

We understand the frustration. In Washington, state legislatures and hometown city councils, AAF members took the unpopular position of defending the right to truthfully advertise tobacco. Some had business interests at stake, certainly, but many-most, we would wager-did not. They fought to defend advertising not cigarettes.

These critics of PM are not alone. PM's offer to accept new curbs on tobacco's use of outdoor, transit and print media, event sponsorships, sampling and other marketing tools has yet to win much support. Only U.S. Tobacco, the No. 1 smokeless tobacco seller, has agreed to back it. Under PM's proposal, the restrictions would be enacted as federal law; in exchange, PM asks Congress to bar future Food & Drug Administration regulation of tobacco and tobacco promotion. (Twenty-five years ago, the tobacco industry accepted a federal ban on TV and radio cigarette advertising; in exchange, Congress ended a federal policy that required broadcasters to provide free time for anti-smoking commercials.)

The vigilant defense of advertising's First Amendment rights does not mean marketers can never voluntarily agree to limit the full exercise of their rights-to serve a public interest, for example, such as curbing underage smoking. Ad people can defend every company's right to truthfully advertise legal products, free of government restrictions, without condemning PM for trying to get the tobacco industry to strike a balance between its rights and the particular responsibilities it bears because of the nature of its products.

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