Attorney General Hardy Myers today warned 16 manufacturers of sport utility vehicles that their SUV advertising was "blurring the line" between SUVs and automobiles and could be in violation of Oregon's consumer protection laws. The warning came in a letter signed by Attorneys General on behalf of 40 states and U.S. territories.
"Recent SUV advertising goes too far when it depicts consumers handling these vehicles as if they had the same performance capabilities as automobiles, when in fact they are more truck-like," Myers said. "The ads fail to adequately warn consumers, prior to purchase, of the SUVs' unique handling problems and high centers of gravity. The ads may encourage unsafe driving habits on our highways."
The letter calls attention to three areas including:
Advertising which suggests or implies that any SUV can safely execute emergency avoidance maneuvers at high speeds.
Advertisements featuring "abundant cargo capacity," which fail to warn consumers that weight and distribution are more critical to safe loading than volume.
So-Called "limit" advertisements that depict SUVs engaged in rugged, high-speed maneuvers and provide a small disclosure indicating the use of "professional drivers" on a "closed course."
Many of these same issues were addressed in December 2002 when all 50 states settled their deceptive advertising investigation of Ford Motor Corporation. The investigation stemmed from a rash of Ford Explorer rollovers following highway tread separations. The two and a half year investigation ended with Ford Motor Company agreeing to pay $51.5 million and change their advertising practices. Under the settlement, $30 million is going to a SUV Safety Awareness campaign scheduled to begin this fall.
Manufacturers receiving the letter included BMW of North America, LLC., DaimlerChrysler Corporation, General Motors Corporation, American Honda Motor Company, Hyundai Motor America, American Isuzu Motor, Inc., Kia Motors America, Inc., Mitsubishi Motors North America, Nissan Motors North America, Porsche Cars North American, Inc., Subaru of America, Inc., American Suzuki Motor Corporation, Toyota Motor North America, Inc., Volkswagen of America, Inc., Mazda North America and Mercedes Benz, United States of America.
A condensed version of the letter's text is as follows:
On behalf of forty (40) States and Territories hereinafter "the States and Territories", we write to express our concern with the advertising of sport utility vehicles (hereinafter "SUVs"). This concern was a major focus of our multi-state investigation of Ford Motor Company, which was recently settled.
To resolve the issues being investigated, Ford and the States and Territories entered into a settlement agreement that prohibits certain representations in the advertising of SUVs. We direct your attention to the terms of the Agreed Final Judgment which are mirrored in judgments filed in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The issues that concern us are not new. In April 1989, the Attorneys General of seven states addressed letters to the major automobile manufacturers in the United States, notifying the manufacturers of the States and Territories' settlement with American Suzuki Motor Corporation. A copy of the letter is attached for your reference. As you see, the Attorneys General cited the finding by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that "multi purpose vehicles" (a designation previously used for SUVs) are more likely than passenger cars to roll over, and explained that any blurring of the distinction between multi-purpose vehicles and passenger cars would be considered deceptive. Unfortunately, in recent years, many manufacturers have again seriously blurred this distinction in advertisements like those which now trumpet the "car-like" attributes of SUVs.
In addition to this general concern, the States and Territories have two specific concerns with current advertising. First, we believe it is deceptive to state or imply in advertising that SUVs have abundant cargo capacity without informing the consumer that cargo capacity is limited not only by volume, but more importantly for the safety of the passengers, by weight and distribution. As you know, overloading is a significant factor in the cause of numerous single vehicle SUV rollover incidents resulting in death and/or serious injury.
Second, we are concerned with any advertising that purports to convey the emergency handling capabilities of SUVs. Suggesting or implying that any SUV can safely execute emergency avoidance maneuvers at high speeds is both misleading and dangerous.
Statistical data developed by the NHTSA has demonstrated that SUVs are three times more likely to roll over than passenger cars.
The States and Territories by this letter wish to make all SUV manufacturers aware that it may be a deceptive or unfair act or practice to advertise SUVs in a manner that:
1) blurs the handling distinction between SUVs and passenger cars,
2) Touts cargo volume without explaining the safe weight limitations of SUVs, and/or
3) Exaggerates high speed abrupt maneuver/emergency avoidance handling capabilities.
Consumers are entitled to full, fair, and honest information in order to make informed decisions when considering whether to purchase SUVs. We believe that the failure to disclose this material information, or to wait until after the sale to disclose it, constitutes a deceptive and unfair trade practice under most state consumer laws.
The States and Territories suggest that you review your SUV advertising in light of the settlement agreement with Ford Motor Company and urge that you comply with the spirit and the terms of the Ford agreement. In particular, as the agreement envisions, the States and Territories do not sanction "limit advertising" that, in its totality, depicts the unsafe operation of an SUV.
We will, of course, continue to monitor and evaluate the advertising of SUVs closely as each of the States and Territories is committed to the enforcement of its advertising laws and the health and safety of consumers.
Your serious attention in this matter is advised.
Oregonians wanting more information about the Attorney General's consumer protection program may call the hotline at (503) 378-4320 (Salem area only), (503) 229-5576 or toll-free at 1-877-877-9392. Justice is online at www.doj.state.or.us.