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Monday, February 28, 2011

The Fine Print in a Car Ad

There ought to be a law against advertising any product, especially cars, while concealing information in the fine print which completely negates the material facts advertised in the bold print, especially price.

Electronic media ads are the worst offenders. The way the fine print disclosure is shown on TV is a joke. It’s literally impossible to read the fine print due to the blurred, small size and the very short length of the time it’s displayed. Radio “fine print” is equally ludicrous. It’s often read at high speed like an “auctioneer on amphetamines”, at a very low volume, and often at the beginning of the commercial so that listeners don’t even know that it’s part of the advertisement.

What do our lawmakers and regulators think when they see these TV ads and listen to the radio ads? The lawmakers either don’t care that misleading ads are routinely deceiving the public or they’ve been paid off by industry lobbyist to look the other way.

For purposes of this article, I had to choose a print ad because, like you, I can’t decipher the fine print in radio or TV ads. I chose this ad at random from lots of car dealer ads in the Palm Beach Post and the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel on Saturday, February 26. This particular ad ran in both of these newspapers. It’s not the most deceptive ad, not the least…just a typical South Florida newspaper car ad with important facts hidden from the reader by putting them in the fine print. You can view the ad for yourself by clicking on www.AnatomyOfACarAd.com. You will see the ad as a whole and a blow-up of the fine print so that you can read it. What follows is an explanation of how the fine print would affect your decision to purchase if you were to read and understand what you read.

(1) Prices plus tax, tag, title, dealer installed options. All of the advertised prices are understated by accessories (options) that the dealer has chosen to add to the advertised car. These are typically low cost items to the dealer that are marked up to you, the customer by a HUGE margin. Examples are pin stripes, nitrogen in tires, glass etch, window tint, door edge guards, “protection packages”, paint sealant, fabric protections, road hazard assistance, etc. A typical markup from dealer installed options would cost the dealer under $100 and be priced to you well over $1,000.

(2) All rebates applied including owner loyalty, lease loyalty, & military rebates. Customer must qualify for all rebates & incentives. Dealer retains all rebates & incentives. The dealer keeps all rebates, even those you might have seen advertised by the manufacturer. You have to sign a form before purchase that assigns your rebates to the dealer. But the worst part of this is the assumption that you qualify for “owner loyalty”, “lease loyalty”, and “military” rebates. Loyalty rebates mean that you have to have purchased or leased that make car and trade it in to qualify. The odds are you drive another make. The military rebate is especially outrageous. It often amounts to $1,000 and only applies if you are currently on active duty in the US military. In other words, the prices that you read in this ad are understated by thousands of dollars in rebates that you very likely will not qualify for.

(3) All vehicles subject to prior sale. Must present ad at time of purchase to receive advertised offer. Offer expires date of publication. Notice in the main part of the ad, each advertised car has a number next to it. One example is STK#110272. This number is the stock number of one particular car and that is the only car available at that price. If the dealer tells you that car was “sold”, he’s not obligated to sell an identical car at the same price even if he has several. If he does sell you an identical car, he can now add his dealer fee. If you buy a car today and see it advertised for less tonight…that’s too bad. If you came in the next day on the ad, that’s too bad too.

(4) Dealer not responsible for typographical errors or omissions. Vehicle art for illustration only. Optional equipment or varying model may be shown. This essentially says that you cannot hold the dealer to anything you read or see pictured in the advertisement. He can say that the price was a “mistake” and that the truck with the luxury wheels and sunroof was “for illustrative purposes only”.

(5) Offers not in conjunction. Other restrictions apply. See dealer for complete details. If the dealer advertised 0% financing and no down payment, you can’t get both. “Other restrictions” means that just in case the dealer didn’t cover everything in the fine print there may be “other restrictions” that he can bring up later. When you come in to buy that new car or truck, he’ll give you those details.

(6) We will beat any local, valid, printed advertisement from another authorized Dodge, Chrysler, or Jeep dealer within the SE Business Center Zone on any new identically equipped in stock vehicle. If we fail to beat the price we will give you $1,000. Customer must present competitors ad at the time of purchase and supply accurate VIN number, competitor’s ad must be dated same day as the customers purchase excluding tax, tag, title, dealer-installed options. If we beat the competitor’s price you must buy the vehicle from Arrigo. Dealer reserves the right to purchase the vehicle from other dealer. The price guarantee doesn’t apply to “dealer installed options” which represent thousand(s) of dollars in profit to the dealer. The dealer reserves the right to purchase the exact car from his competitor. There’s zero chance that his competitor will sell him that car, lose the sale and give it to his competition.

(7) $3,000 cash or trade equity due at signing. This means that the price or lease payment you came in on requires you to give the dealer $3,000.

(8) Qualified Customers with a minimum 750 credit score. Most people don’t have that good a credit score and will be asked to make higher payments and/or put down a larger down payment.

The bottom line is that you should never buy a car in response to an advertisement. The deck is stacked against you and you can’t win the game. The only way to get a good price on a new or used car is to first decide on the exact year, make, and model and which options you want and compare prices with at least three dealers. Do the same for your trade in and for your financing.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Make “Black Box” Data Recorders Mandatory on All Vehicles

Regular readers of this column and blog may be shocked to read about my advocating government intervention regarding equipment on new cars. I’ve come out against silly proposed government suggestions like installing a “noise maker” in hybrid vehicles so that they can be heard when running on batteries. I’m also against a device that will prevent your car from starting if your cell phone is turned on. I don’t even like the check engine light which is mandated by law to be sure your car isn’t leaking too many pollutants.

However, I’m totally in favor of requiring all auto manufacturers to install EDR’s (electronic data recorders) in all vehicles. Interestingly enough, many manufacturers have been doing this for a lot of years, but they kept it a “secret”. I can remember customers calling me to ask if there was an EDR in their Toyota. At first, I said no because Toyota had never told their dealers anything about this. When word finally leaked out, I learned that this EDR was for internal use only and in fact Toyota and the other manufacturers encrypted the data so that, if somebody found the black box, they couldn’t translate the information.

Why would manufacturers keep an EDR secret from their customers, the government, and everybody else? The answer is fear of litigation. Plaintiffs’ lawyers could use this information against the manufacturer in product liability claims and lawyers could also sue manufacturers for violation of their privacy rights.

I have no sympathy for a manufacturer who is afraid of the truth. If the EDR proves that there was a defect that caused the accident, so be it. The manufacturer is guilty and should pay damages. The unacceptable alternative is to not learn or hide the truth. What’s even worse is that the known cause of the accident may not be corrected so that future cars won’t have the same problem.

I also have no sympathy for privacy advocates who say “It’s my car and the black box belongs to me. I can determine who looks at the black box.” It might be your car, but the government can tell you how fast you can drive without imperiling the lives of others. They should also be able to find out to a certainty whether speeding or driver error caused you to injure or kill another person(s).

A fringe benefit of EDR’s would be a huge savings in the costs of litigation and insurance. A black box is like DNA in that the evidence is indisputable. I wonder if one of the reasons the black box is being stonewalled is the resistance of lawyers.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) issued regulations in 2006 regarding an EDR but without making it mandatory. In other words, the manufacturers can take it or leave it. This is nonsensical. What good is rule if you don’t enforce it? What could be more important than a device that will scientifically determine the cause of an accident…whether the accident was caused by driver error, vehicle defects, or highway design flaws? Who can possibly be against this? They estimate that the cost to the manufacturer would be only about 50 cents!

The EDR, black box, has been mandatory in airplanes for many years. Thousands of lives have been saved as a result of being able to determine the causes of airline accidents and instituting remedies in the form of design changes and improved training and safety regulations for flight crews. If we had had black boxes in cars as long as airplanes, the number of deaths and injuries prevented would be many times greater than that in airplanes simply because of the larger number of people who drive than fly and the greater number of accidents.

Ironically, the highly publicized recalls of millions of Toyotas worldwide, may have awakened the car manufacturers and the government to the necessity of EDR’s. One of the things that proved the innocence of Toyota against the charges of vehicle defects causing “sudden acceleration” was Electronic Data Recorders that were furnished to NHTSA and deciphered by Toyota. All of the EDR evidence proved that the accidents caused from the alleged sudden acceleration were driver error. Drivers either accidentally stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake or had the wrong floor mats placed incorrectly (sometimes two sets stacked on top of each other) in their vehicles.

Hopefully all manufacturers and our government will get the idea. That idea is the one our mothers taught us when we were children…honesty is the best policy” and as Dr. Martin Luther King often quoted, “The truth shall set you free”.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ray LaHood, The Media & Congress Owe Toyota an Apology

You may have seen it on TV or maybe even a newspaper that Toyota was exonerated from safety concerns about their electronic throttle controls. I say “may” have seen it because the media downplayed this just as badly as they hyped the lies about Toyota having unsafe cars.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) commissioned NASA to study whether or not any sudden acceleration problems could be caused by the electronic throttle control systems in Toyotas. This is the same system that most other manufacturers now use. Our nation’s top scientists studied this possibility for 10 months and concluded this month that there are no defects and Toyotas are perfectly safe to drive.

The conclusion is that most of those cases of “sudden acceleration” were the fault of the drivers, not Toyota, and the rest of them were lawyers and car owners trying to make a fast buck by suing Toyota. In the vast majority of the accidents, the driver mistakenly stepped on the accelerator thinking it was the brake. This sort of thing happens every day, especially in south Florida where a lot of elderly people who shouldn’t drive do. Other “sudden acceleration” accidents were caused by customer or dealers accidentally using the wrong floor mats in cars or stacking more than one set of floor mats on top of the other. The terrible case of the highway patrolman’s family killed driving a Lexus in Texas was the fault of the wrong floor mats. The media jumped all over this one even though it was proven that the dealer incorrectly installed truck all-weather floor mats “upside down” in this Lexus. These were the only deaths caused by any alleged sudden acceleration event.

Toyota, Toyota dealers and their employees, and Toyota customers have suffered financially and emotionally from the irresponsible acts and suspect motivations of Ray LaHood, the chairman of NHTSA, the Congress, and the media. Ray LaHood, on national TV, actually told all Toyota owners to pull their Toyotas over to the side of the road, get out of the car, and don’t drive it again. I can still remember the panic of my customers in my dealership on that day. The phones were ringing off the hooks and some of my customers were literally in tears.

Toyota had to recall millions of Toyotas at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Millions of Toyota owners were fearful of their “lives”, even being afraid to drive their cars to the dealerships to have them “fixed”. For my customers who were terrified to drive their cars, I sent my technicians to their homes or brought them a free loaner car and took their car back to my dealership. Even after the cars were “fixed”, owners were fearful of driving them because of the pure speculation that there might be something wrong with the electronic throttle control too.

Every time someone claimed their Toyota had accelerated out of control, the media headlined and featured the accusation but when the allegation was proven fraudulent or mistaken, they failed to mention this at all or buried it on the back pages.

Congress dragged the president of Toyota USA , Jim Lentz, and the chairman of the board of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, in front of the TV cameras and utterly humiliated them. The worst of these political hacks were the Congressmen from the Detroit, Michigan districts, Bart Stupak, and John Dingell. There hidden agenda was clearly to build up GM, Chrysler, and Ford by tearing down Toyota.

Toyota had no choice but to apologize and confess to a crime they didn’t commit. It would have been suicidal for Toyota to blame their customers for the problems of sudden acceleration. This would have whipped Ray LaHood, Congress, and the media into an even greater feeding frenzy and may have even brought down Toyota as big and powerful as they are.

Toyota’s false confession is analogous to the large number of false confessions by accused criminals. Many innocent men and women confess every day to crimes they didn’t commit. The police interrogators make it sound as if they have no alternative. They tell the accused that they have more than sufficient evidence to convict. They go on to say that they can get the judge to go easy on them if they confess and save the taxpayers the cost of a trial. Sometime they promise no jail time and probation, but a very severe sentence of they don’t sign a false confession. This occurrence is so common, that courts have held that a confession by itself is not sufficient to convict. There must be enough evidence to substantiate the confession. The famous novelist, John Gresham, just wrote a book on this very topic, Confession, which is on the NY Times best seller list.

I’m not deluding myself to expect that Ray LaHood, Congress, or the media would ever do the right thing and publically apologize to Toyota. Admitting you’re wrong and sincerely apologizing takes class…and as the old Frank Sinatra song, “Style”, goes…”You either got or you haven’t got class”.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Mega Car Dealer Counter Attacks Palm Beach Post

My weekly column/blog is usually devoted to advice and opinion but sometimes I have to report the news, especially when nobody else will.

Three Sundays ago, one of the larger car dealers in Palm Beach County, Ed Napleton, was arrested for DUI and jailed overnight. Napleton has several car dealerships in Palm Beach County, including Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep, and Lincoln Mercury. Now, this isn’t the news I feel compelled to report because I don’t really consider this sort of personal tragedy news. What I do feel is newsworthy is that the Palm Beach Post did report it in their newspaper and website and in tabloid-like juicy detail. You can read their web posting at PBPostNapletonDUI and see if you agree.

They say that celebrities like Charlie Sheen, are fair game for this sort thing, but a local businessman who never even appeared on TV or had his picture in the paper?

What clinched the news worthiness of this column was the fact that Ed Napleton has retaliated against the PB Post by cancelling all of his advertising. This doesn’t sound very interesting unless you understand that Ed Napleton spends very large sums of money advertising in the Post and is their largest car dealer advertiser. In fact, he may be their largest advertiser period.

As you know, newspapers have seen better economic times. In fact, over the past several years many newspapers have closed up shop, many have declared bankruptcy, and most others are teetering on bankruptcy. The PB Post has been “hanging by a financial thread” for some time. Losing their largest advertiser can be a mortal blow to any newspaper and it may well be to the PB Post.

My first reaction when I read about Napleton’s unfortunate incident in the PB Post, was surprise that the Post would dare report such a thing about their largest advertiser. I was on the verge of changing my mind about them because I’ve always believed most newspapers covered up for car dealers, giving them a free pass for fear of losing them as advertisers. Now, I’m beginning to doubt that theory. Upon reflection, I think that reporting Napleton’s DUI was an accident that slipped under the radar of the PB Post’s executives. Why else would they fail to report on all of the obvious violations by Napleton’s dealerships’ advertising in their own newspaper? I’ve written about many of his violations of Florida’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act and these deceptive ads appear almost daily in full page and color right in their own newspaper!
Or maybe it wasn’t that the Post’s editors missed this DUI story but that they just couldn’t resist a juicy story that would sell lots of newspapers. Whatever the case, things have got to be buzzing at the PB Post and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some “heads roll”. This is just a guess, but I have to believe that the advertising department has launched a major effort to regain their largest advertiser. It’s going to be very interesting to wait and see if Napleton begins to advertise again. And if he does, what sort of concessions the PB Post had to make to accomplish this.

In closing, I commend those few members of the media who do print and broadcast the whole truth in spite of consequences including advertisers who threaten to cancel or do cancel their advertising. The Hometown News is one of those newspapers and Seaview Radio is one of those radio stations. Steve Erlanger, the publisher of Hometown News, and Chet Tart the General Manager of Seaview Radio allow me my platform to “tell it like it is” about South Florida car dealers. I know that both of these men would enjoy a lot more revenue from local car dealers if they refused to let me tell the truth. That’s the way journalism used to be and that’s the way it should be.