Smart elephant

Do we have yet another advertising scandal on our hands? A full-page four-color ad touting the tiny Smart car’s safety features appeared in the September 10 issue of USA Today. By way of illustrating the minuscule microcar’s muscularity, the ad included a photograph of a size Medium elephant standing on the roof of a Smart fortwo. (Ed. Note: The folks who market the car, an urban economy vehicle that could be described as two seats surrounded by a body, would like us to spell smart with no capital letter: smart instead of Smart. We’d rather not.)

William Jeanes, AOL Autos

There was a tiny problem with the elephant photo, however. If you thought the Smart’s body was strong, maybe you’d better have a look at its springs. The suspension is stiff enough to withstand the weight of an elephant without a bit of travel. How do we know that? The relationship of both front and rear wheels to their respective wheel wells is unchanged from that observed in a Smart bearing no elephant.

This discrepancy, plus an investigative sensitivity developed from decades of watching Law & Order episodes, leads to the inescapable conclusion that the sinister Photoshop gang has struck yet again. Adobe Photoshop, as you may know, is the software program that made every photo retoucher on the planet consider retraining as a welder.

In any event, the photo is an obvious fake. Or is it? And if it is a fake, how serious is the offense?

Smart USA Today ad elephant
Smart's ad from September 10, 2009 (image courtesy of Smart USA)

In 1990, Volvo aired a television commercial in which a monster truck named Bear Foot rolled its swollen tires down a line of cars which included a Volvo 240 station wagon. All of Bear Foot’s victims save the Volvo were crushed. The strength of the Volvo roof was obvious. Too obvious, as it turned out.

Without bothering to tell Volvo, the commercial production company hired by the automaker‘s advertising agency, had welded the odd brace or two inside the Volvo while structurally weakening some of the other cars. Word, as word will, got out.

The attorney general of Texas, where the spot was filmed, sued the Swedish automaker for fraud and deceptive trade practices, stopping just short of equating Volvo with the Waffen SS. Those who stand in permanent readiness to attack the advertising and auto industries had the time of their dispiriting lives, and the company paid a heavy public relations penalty. Volvo, the benchmark for safety among automotive brands, found itself held up for public ridicule by every tinhorn moralist in the country.

Its hard-won reputation sullied, Volvo asked its ad agency of 23 years standing to resign. The company took all the public blame, letting the production company and the ad agency retire into the shadows of the controversy. Volvo apologized in print, wore sackcloth and ashes to the Detroit Auto Show and, rumor has it, journeyed to the Vatican in search of absolution.

Bob Austin, Volvo’s head of public relations at the time and the man ultimately responsible for advertising activities, says today that the up front acceptance of blame was the right thing to do.

"In the first place, the idea came from videotape of an actual monster truck event," Austin says. "We never set out to deceive. But improper things happened on our watch and we took the heat. The good news was that, six months down the road, the public felt that we’d made a mistake as marketers, but the reputation of Volvos as safe, well-built automobiles was never stronger."

On another side of the fakery coin, the crusading masterminds at Dateline NBC learned that a few General Motors pickup trucks had burst into flames after sustaining side crashes that would have felled, well, an elephant. Not content with this tidbit, the network crew rigged explosive devices on the truck the program used to illustrate the problem, thereby ensuring flames and horror.

That sorry serving of subterfuge, which the Los Angeles Times called "an electronic Titanican unprecedented disaster in the annals of network news, and perhaps the biggest TV scam since the Quiz Scandals," cost NBC a big loss in credibility as well it should have. A truckload of NBC employees were fired, and the show’s co-anchor, Jane Pauley, led a lengthy but insincere-sounding apology to GM and the show’s viewers.

With those background stories for perspective, what are we to make of Smart’s use of a Dumbo lookalike to trumpet its safety chops? Are sinister forces at work here?

In seeking answers to this weighty question, it is instructive to return to Bob Austin for a moment. Austin, now a consultant based in New Jersey, recalls a 1971 Volvo print ad emphasizing roof strength. Called "Stacking," the ad showed six Volvo 144s stacked atop a seventh. They were real Volvos, but the impressive stack had help. Each of the six stacked cars rested in a wooden cradle that evenly distributed its weight across the top of the car immediately beneath--and also helped keep the stack from toppling over and ruining some hapless photographer‘s day.

Moreover, and this relates directly to the elephant standing on the Smart, there were braces under the Volvo’s suspension which prevented its bottoming out and which also took weight off the tires. Therefore, even a close look at the photo would not reveal any dip in the suspension.

A careful reading of the Smart ad in question tells us that the car had done extraordinarily well in crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Not only had the crash tests gone well for Smart, other data showed that the car’s body and roof structure can support more than five times its total weight of approximately 1800 pounds. The idea of using a visual device such as an African elephant to illustrate this strength was hardly a reach. But was it ethical to do it electronically?

"If Smart did that, it would make perfect sense," Bob Austin told AOL Autos, "To my mind it’s not cheating. The point was the strength of the roof, not the strength of the suspension." Add to that the difficulty of hiring an elephant wrangler, an elephant and enough scaffolding to help the beast on to the car roof, and you can sympathize with using an alternative creative solution.

Dave Stokols, a West Coast marketing executive, differed by saying, "There are many OEMs straining the credibility of advertising at a time when it really doesn’t need use this favor. As one who has spent a couple of decades substantiating advertising claims and promoting truth in advertising, it is always confounding to see an ad like this.

"As for this particular ad, if you’ve ever envisioned yourself in a Smart, the first thing that comes to mind is safety. It’s just so darn small. And because of its physical attributes you also might not appreciate the serious engineering that has gone into a Smart to make it astonishingly safe. So to strain the credibility of the brand with Photoshopped 'demonstrations' is an unnecessary risk. The Smart has genuine and defensible safety features that can be memorably depicted and would not detract from the serious engineering basis of the product."
 
What were Smart management’s thoughts? Our investigative team tracked down Smart’s public relations boss, Ken Kettenbeil, in Frankfurt, Germany, and put this question to him: Was the elephant on the roof really an elephant on the roof or was it Adobe Photoshop at work?

Company spokespersons of course are trained to handle questions like that. They learn to tap dance, apply company spin and perform feats of escape and evasion that would do credit to a commando. None of these skills, however, were apparent in Kettenbeil’s reply.

"It was Photoshopped," said Kettenbeil. "We were looking for a simple way to illustrate the roof strength, and the elephant came to mind." The actual Photoshopping, for you  evidence gatherers, was done by a Detroit creative group, Designers and Partners.

All of which leads me to conclude that no Smart executives should receive prison terms nor should the agency be forced to close. We should not call in Henry Waxman and hold hearings. If we must assess some penalty, how about having Smart banned in perpetuity from airing commercials on re-runs of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

Read More from William Jeanes:

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