1990 ‘Lemon’ Ad Awards Include Some Double Winners

The “bad ads” were more misleading than ever in 1990--no thanks to the looming recession.

So says one consumer watchdog group, the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, which Monday handed out its sixth-annual “Harlan Page Hubbard Lemon Awards” for “the most misleading, unfair or irresponsible” ad campaigns of the past year.

It says misleading ad campaigns in 1990 promoted Virginia Slims as cigarettes that can help women stay thin; advertised Pan Am as operating one of the “youngest” transatlantic fleets in the sky, even though many of its planes have simply been rebuilt, and positioned Volvo as a car that somehow withstood the strain of a giant truck rolling over it. Never mind that it required the aid of props and advertising hocus-pocus to keep the Volvo intact.

These were just three of the ads the consumer group, in conjunction with eight national consumer, environmental and public health organizations, cited during a ceremony in Washington. Two advertisers, General Motors and Philip Morris, received an embarrassing two “lemons” each.


“Deceptive advertising is alive, well and on the increase,” Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the center, said in a telephone interview. “We’re experiencing a weakening economy, which leads to intense competition. That can lead advertisers to stoop to marketing techniques they might have otherwise resisted.”

To that, the leader of the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies says hogwash. “There’s no better time for an advertiser to be totally candid with the consumer than during a recession,” said John O’Toole, president of the New York-based ad industry trade group. What’s more, he said, the Center for Science “is an anti-advertising, anti-business group that is out there on the lunatic fringe.”

Harlan Page Hubbard, the man the dubious awards ceremony is named after, is broadly credited with pioneering shoddy advertising techniques in the 1890s after devising a successful ad campaign for Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a quack medicine advertised to cure everything from fatigue to cancer.

The bad ad awards, in his honor, were handed out to these companies:

* Oldsmobile--One citation is for an ad that claims that GM “pioneered the air bag.” The consumer group notes that GM has the fewest models equipped with air bags of the Big Three auto makers.

A second award went to Oldsmobile for an ad claiming that its Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme is “fuel-efficient.” The center points out that the car averages just 23 miles per gallon--4.5 miles per gallon less than the 27.5 Environmental Protection Agency average fleet standard.

“Our ads are based on facts, and we can substantiate any claims we make,” said Gus Buenz, director of public relations at Oldsmobile.

* Philip Morris--One award is for its ads for Superslims by Virginia Slims, which the consumer group says “asks women to trade their health for an illusion of beauty and slimness.” The other award is for a campaign that features celebrities touting the Bill of Rights. “The Philip Morris campaign is designed to tie this document to its so-called right to sell deadly products,” said the consumer organization.


“The group is making a wild claim. They are the only ones who seem to be confused by the ads,” said Les Zuke, director of communications for Philip Morris U.S.A.

* Pan Am--In a TV ad, Pan Am claims that its transatlantic fleet is “among the youngest in the air.” Silverglade calls the claim “bogus.” Many of its planes are actually “more akin to (rebuilt) retreads” that the firm is passing off as new, he said.

“We stand by our ad,” said Pan Am spokesman Alan Loflin, who notes that many of its older jets have been completely rebuilt. “To characterize any airplane’s age only by its chronological age shows a total lack of understanding of what an airplane is.”

* Kellogg--TV ads for Special K cereal claim that some people who diet can also lose muscle. The ads say Special K is high in protein and can help dieters keep their muscle while losing fat. The consumer group points out that Kellogg’s claim is dubious, but even if it were true, an entire bowl of the cereal only has as much protein as one tablespoon of tuna. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has filed a lawsuit claiming that the ad is misleading.


“We stand by the ad,” said Celeste Clark, vice president of nutrition at Kellogg. “For them to suggest that the ad is misleading is the greatest deception of all.”

* Burger King--Burger King TV commercials promote a “Kid’s Club” where kids can have “lots of fun nonstop.” Kids who join the club get stickers, membership cards--and their names on Burger King mailing lists. “It isn’t really a club at all,” says the consumer group, but “yet another attempt to lure kids into fast-food restaurants with the promise that it will make life more fun.”

“We know it’s not misleading,” said Cori Zywotow, a Burger King spokesman who said the club has signed up 2.7 million members in one year. “Their claim is unsubstantiated.”

* Coors--A recent Coors Light TV commercial turns Halloween, once considered a childrens holiday, into a “drinking holiday,” says the consumer group. “Americans young and old are being duped into believing they can’t celebrate Halloween without drinking.”


“To claim Halloween is a holiday just celebrated by children isn’t true,” said Todd Appleman, corporate communications manager at Coors. “We feel strongly the ads are done in a responsible manner.”

* Volvo--Perhaps the most talked-about ad of the year was a Volvo commercial that re-created a demonstration of a Volvo car standing up to the weight of a “Monster Truck” rolling over it. But the ad, which was enshrined into the “Hubbard Hall of Shame,” was not labeled a demonstration.

Volvo’s agency has since resigned the business. And Volvo spokesman Robert Austin has said the ad was a “mistake.”

Software Firm Gives Its Account to L.A. Agency


A tiny Los Angeles agency has won another good-sized chunk of business.

Larsen Colby Koralek, a division of New York-based Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver, last week was handed the estimated $3-million advertising account for Central Point Software, a Portland, Ore., firm that specializes in making so-called utility software for personal computers.

“As a small agency, it’s nice to get a client who is at the top of their business instead of one that’s trying to climb to the top,” said Rick Colby, president of the agency. Colby said his firm would likely be hiring several additional employees.

BBDO Helps Professor Get a Start in Hollywood


A college professor has gone Hollywood, thanks to a Los Angeles ad agency.

Von Washington, who teaches performing arts at Western Michigan University, is best known these days for his attention-getting role in a commercial for Apple’s new MacIintosh computers. In the ad, Washington plays a vibrant professor who tries to wake up his business class to the realities of competing in today’s world.

“As soon as I read the script, I knew it was for me,” said Washington. The commercial has since landed him an invitation to an audition for an upcoming Columbia Pictures film and led to negotiations for a role in an independent TV series.

Washington can only hope that his luck somehow mirrors that of another little-known actor who was cast by the ad agency BBDO/Los Angeles for a 1983 Apple commercial: Kevin Costner.