Albion Monitor /News

Deceptive Ads Given Lemon Awards

Companies that bilked consumers out of millions of dollars are often not even required to pay a fine
WASHINGTON -- At an awards ceremony last month in Washington, D.C., national consumer and health organizations selected some of the "most misleading, unfair, and irresponsible" ad campaigns of the past year for the 13th annual Harlan Page Hubbard Lemon Awards.

The not-so-thrilled winning advertisers were notified that they were each entitled to a "Hubbard" -- a bronze-colored victory statuette grasping a fresh lemon. The "winners" included:

  • Cadillac, for an irresponsible TV ad showing its new Catera illegally crossing a double yellow line to pass other cars.

  • Sprint, for promising free phone calls on Monday nights without disclosing a variety of hidden restrictions, including that the free Monday night calls were limited to the month of November for current Sprint customers.

  • The VISA check card, for television commercials claiming that debit cards are better than checks even though such cards do not provide consumers with the legal protections afforded by checks.

  • Nutri/System weight loss clinics, for promoting phen-Pro, a drug combination that has not been proven to be safe or effective, as the fastest way to lose weight without any health risks.

  • Anheuser Busch, for irresponsibly encouraging over-consumption of alcohol through its "Buy the Beer, Get the Gear" campaign, a program that encourages people to collect and exchange large numbers of bottle caps in a short period of time for "free gifts."

"The Federal Trade Commission needs new authority to deal with the ever increasing craftiness of advertisers," stated Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and creator of the Hubbard Awards. "All too often, the FTC can only order deceptive advertisers to 'cease and desist.' Companies that bilked consumers out of millions of dollars are often not even required to pay a fine. Congress needs to give the watchdog agency more teeth," he said.

The FTC and 23 state attorneys general also took action against Mitsubishi for misleading auto leasing commercials
The awards ceremony was conducted in Oscar-like fashion at the National Press Club on Dec. 4 with formal-attired attendants opening sealed award envelopes and presenting lemon-topped trophies. The Hubbard Awards are named after the 19th-century advertising impresario who pioneered the use of deceptive advertising techniques on a national scale. One of Hubbard's biggest campaigns was for "Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound," an elixir that Hubbard advertised as a "cure" for disorders ranging from cancer to low sex drive.

"The Hubbard spirit is alive and well in the advertising community today. Whether it's a long distance telephone company that promises 'free' phone calls or a diet program that promises weight loss 'without the risks,' deceptive ads empty our pocketbooks and endanger our health," Silverglade said.

Hubbard lemon trophies were also awarded to:

  • R.J. Reynolds, for deceptively implying that its new "No additive" Winston cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes.

  • Lichtwer Pharma, for deceptive ads claiming that Gingkai, a dietary supplement made of gingko biloba, can improve the memory of a normal, healthy person even though the herbal substance has only been tested on persons with dementia such as Alzheimer's disease.

  • The American Egg Board, for claiming that eggs will probably not raise a healthy person's cholesterol levels.

  • Abbott Laboratories, for deceptively implying that Ensure nutritional beverages can help healthy adults stay healthy, active and energetic.

Some previous Hubbard Award winners have been clobbered with substantial penalties. For example, advertising for Arthritis Foundation Pain Relievers, manufactured by a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson, received a Hubbard Award in 1994 for implying that the line of non-prescription pain relievers were new products especially designed for the relief of arthritis when they actually consisted of ordinary aspirin, ibuprofen, and other commonly-available non-prescription pain relievers. In October 1996, a coalition of 19 state attorneys general forced the company to halt the ads and pay almost $2 million in penalties.

The Federal Trade Commission and 23 state attorneys general also took action against Mitsubishi, a 1995 winner, for misleading auto leasing commercials (the monthly lease payment was splashed across the television screen in large type, but other mandatory costs were buried in tiny type that appeared at the bottom of the screen for only a few seconds).

"We are gratified that the Hubbard Awards are being taken seriously. Unfortunately, federal agencies like the FTC need more authority for combating deceptive advertising. As long as the FTC is under funded and it's authority remains limited, consumers themselves must remain vigilant," said Brian Branton, a legislative associate at CSPI and co-organizer of the event.

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Albion Monitor January 26, 1998 (

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