Monday, August 02, 2010

Journalistic Ethics in Car Advertising

Does a newspaper, TV or radio station have a social or ethical responsibility to screen out advertisement obviously designed to trick their audience? How about an illegal advertisement? Should a newspaper print an advertisement and accept payment for this ad knowing that the ad violates the Florida Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act or the Federal Truth in Lending?

Back in the eighties, a magazine titled Soldier of Fortune regularly ran help wanted ads for people looking for “hit men” and assassins. The ads were worded in such a way that no one could miss their implication. “Ex Green Beret, trained to kill, will do anything for $5,000”. Bob Spearman was the friend of a good friend of mine. Bob hired two men to kill his wife, Anita, through a Soldier of Fortune advertisement. They successfully killed his wife Anita, but bungled the job so badly that they were caught and spilled the beans on Bob Spearman. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Should Soldier of Fortune Magazine been charged in this crime? They were sued and have since stopped running “murderer wanted” classified ads.

I’m writing this article on Monday, August 2nd and on page 8E of today’s PB Post is a full page color advertisement for Napleton Nissan VIEW AD HERE Napleton probably spends more money advertising in the PB Post than any other car dealer and may be the paper’s largest advertiser. This ad and many similar do it run over and over, not just in the PB Post, but other newspapers and local TV and radio stations. This ad says you can buy a new Nissan Altima for $99 per month. In the fine print it says that the $99 payment is “subsidized by the dealer for the first 6 months”. It doesn’t say how much it’s subsidized and it doesn’t suggest the “source’ of the subsidy. This is deceptive enough, but what really grabbed my attention is that nowhere in the ad does it state the interest rate (Annual Percentage Rate), the number of monthly payments, or the amount of the down payment. Federal law, Truth in Lending, Regulation Z, requires that when an advertiser quotes a monthly payment he must also disclose the interest rate, number of payments, and down payment. Otherwise, how would a prospective buyer have any idea how much she was paying? Here’s some icing on the cake, the ad also increases the advertised price for “freight” but doesn’t say for how much (In past ads it was shown as $750). Of course, Nissan includes the freight cost in the price of the car. When Napleton charges you for the freight, you have paid for the freight twice! This is a violation of the Florida Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

I blasted Bill McCollum for not using his office as Attorney General to police and regulate ads like this. His excuse is that he doesn’t have the manpower to do so. OK, Bill, how about making it the responsibility of the media to refuse to print obviously illegal or deceptive advertisements? This reduces the manpower requirement because there are far fewer major media outlets than car dealers.

The media righteously declares that “it’s not their job” to act as a police force. I guess that’s the defense Soldier of Fortune Magazine used too. What gripes me is that the media enjoys special protection, rights, and privileges that other businesses don’t under our Constitution. This is because they are supposed to help protect us by telling the truth about crooked politicians, businessmen, and bad guys in general. Another nonsense excuse I hear from the media is that the advertising department is separate. The guys and gals in the news and editorial departments claim to have no knowledge of what’s going on. Of course they do know that they would be out of job if the advertising department didn’t sell a lot of advertising. How could they be expected to tell Ed Napleton to clean up his act when he’s one of their largest advertisers? Of course, the top management of a newspaper, the publisher, has authority over all departments, news, editorial, and advertising. That’s why I personally met with a recent past publisher of the PB Post and voiced my views. Privately and off the record, he confessed that the survival of the paper via ad revenues “trumped’ doing the right thing.

Do me a favor. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper and tell him your views on those illegal and deceptive car ads that he continues to run. Saturday is a good day to find the most ammunition.

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