Nissan went too far with a TV commercial that depicts its Frontier pickup truck powering up a sandy hill to save a struggling dune buggy, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
In an announcement Thursday, the commission said Nissan has agreed to settle deceptive advertising charges over the 30-second ad. In it, a little black dune buggy can be seen stuck in sand on a steep hill. Suddenly, a red Frontier speeds to the rescue of the dune buggy and pushes it up and over the hill, to the cheers of amazed onlookers.
'Special effects in ads can be entertaining, but advertisers can't use them to misrepresent what a product can do' - FTC's Jessica Rich
The "Hill Climb" ad was shot in a realistic-looking YouTube style.
And no, the Frontier pickup can't really do that. In fact, the FTC complaint says both the truck and the buggy were dragged to the top of the hill by cables.
In a statement, Nissan said it takes its commitment to truthful advertising seriously. "The company has been and remains committed to complying with the law," said spokesman Travis Parman.
Also named in the complaint is advertising agency TBWA Worldwide Inc. The FTC says both Nissan and TBWA are barred from making deceptive demonstrations in future ads.
"Special effects in ads can be entertaining, but advertisers can't use them to misrepresent what a product can do," said Jessica Rich, head of the FTC's consumer protection bureau.
Disclaimer not enough
The ad did have a disclaimer that briefly flashed on the screen at the beginning — saying it was a "fictionalization" and that viewers should "not attempt."
But that didn't work for the commission.
"The disclosure that was on the screen was neither clear nor conspicuous," said Matthew Gold, an FTC attorney in San Francisco. "Even if what was being portrayed was understood to be fictional, consumers could still believe that what was shown was an actual stunt instead of something achieved through special effects."
The proposed settlement does not prohibit the use of special effects, the commission said, as long as they don't misrepresent the qualities or features of the pickup truck.
The ad aired in late 2011. A more recent Nissan ad, for the automaker's new Rogue SUV, has been the subject of a somewhat intense social media campaign.
Disclaimer: 'Cars can't jump on trains'
The ad shows a woman driving a Rogue, swerving and speeding up a ramp, launching the car into the air and then managing to land on the top of a train to avoid traffic and arrive at her destination early. It's been airing frequently during NFL and college-football games, prompting complaints on Twitter and on the automaker's Facebook page.
The Rogue ad contains a disclaimer, "Fantasy, do not attempt. Cars can't jump on trains."
The FTC would not say if it had received any complaints about Nissan's Rogue commercial.