Five Ways Car Ads Mislead Consumers

Ads may be technically true but vital details may be missing

If you watched last night's Super Bowl, you saw some pretty clever car commercials. But before you rush off to a dealership, understand that even the slickest, funniest most appealing car advertisements can be misleading.

It's not that the commercials give you information that is not true -- but rather, it's the information they don't give you.

"Advertisers have every right to create excitement for their product, but to be a smart shopper you need to understand and interpret the language of hype," said Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor at automotive site "Once you've translated an ad into 'consumerspeak,' you'll know if the vehicle featured is a good deal for you."

According to Reed, the five most common marketing ruses found in automotive ads are:

  1. Showing the top trim, but advertising the base price. In TV ads it's common to see a fully loaded, top-trim model of a vehicle on the screen while the price of a base model is being displayed. You might assume that you could buy the car pictured at the price presented. Wrong. The small print should clarify this, if you can manage to read it.
  2. Preposterous MPG. A hot-looking sport coupe is tearing up the landscape when the text flies across the TV screen: "40 mpg!" Granted, this car is capable of getting 40 mpg on the highway, provided you drive like a fuel-efficiency-focused hypermiler. But you won't get anywhere near that mileage if you're driving full-throttle like the guy in the ad.
  3. Lease Payments Too Good to Be True. You're innocently checking the box scores in the newspaper when you see a luxury car ad promoting lease payments for only $199 a month. If you left for the dealership right away, you might not notice the small print saying that $4,999 is required to start this lease.
  4. The Phantom Special. A local newspaper ad features the phrase "One at this price," which is a tip-off to what insiders call an "ad car." It's usually the purple one with crank windows and no A/C — cheap, but not necessarily in a good way. If you go to the dealership and ask to test drive the one-only car, it's likely A) "Already been sold," B) "Out on a test-drive" or C) "In the back of the lot, and I'd have to move 50 cars to get to it." The "good" news, of course, is that they have lots of other cars for sale. The bad news is that those cars are a lot more expensive.
  5. Rebates for Everyone — But Not You. You see an ad for the car of your dreams, listed at a price that barely squeaks into your budget. So you run down to the dealership only to find out that to get to the reduced price the dealership factored in a military rebate, college-graduate rebate, brand "loyalty bonus" or other discounts and rebates that are not available to folks like you.

Then, there are those fabulous financing deals.

"Zero percent financing is only for qualified buyers," Reed said. "If you don't have excellent credit, those advertising messages don't apply to you." analysts estimate that only about one in four car buyers qualify for the lowest interest rate offered.

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