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Bizarre BMW Commercial Seems Similar to Classic False Advertising Lawsuit

Bizarre comparison: Is it false advertising for BMW to pick on Volvo?

I thankfully don’t watch many commercials. But maybe I’m missing out.

From what I gather, this bizarre commercial first aired during the Super Bowl. But it’s new to me.

I think the commercial is bizarre because in an effort to promote its supposedly clean diesel SUV, BMW portrays an exhaust-belching car that unmistakably is an old Volvo. A diesel Volvo, apparently. 

While I appreciate BMW’s desire to contrast clean with dirty, did it have to select such a distinctive car design to pick on? It could have selected any number of nondescript cars to outshine. Instead, it portrays its competitor’s car as being almost evil. BMW’s shiny new offering by comparison looks like it might single-handedly save the planet.

It seems incredible that Volvo doesn’t have a problem with this. It really reminds me of the old “Polar Seltzer” commercial spoofing the Coca-Cola polar bears seen in Coke commercials during the Winter Olympics. Competing Polar Seltzer’s bears humorously reject a can of Coke upon being admonished by a sign to “Keep the Arctic Pure,” and reach instead for a can of Polar Seltzer. Nice gimmick, but Coke sued for false advertising because Polar Seltzer wrongly suggested Coke is impure. Coke famously won, and Polar had to change its ad.

If old diesel Volvos don’t actually spew soot like the conclusion of “Citizen Kane,” I think BMW is taking the same unfair advantage that Polar Seltzer took.

Posted on September 26, 2011 by Registered CommenterMichael Atkins in | Comments4 Comments

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Reader Comments (4)

I think the commercial is trying to rehabilitate the reputation of diesel-fueled cars by comparing today's spry and clean diesel engines with those of the 70s and 80s. A useful trope, but like you I'm surprised that BMW's rivals have not cried foul about this unfair ad.

The persistent rap on diesel engines is that they are dirty, noisy, slow, and run rough on idle. So BMW shows a smoke-belching diesel tanker, a 70s vintage diesel fuel pump and vintage Mercedes and Volvo diesel cars to signify that unpleasant past. The Mercedes has a heavy vibration and belches smoke. The Volvo also belches smoke and strains to climb a hill that the BMW easily sprints up.

By contrast, today's diesel engines use a cleaner diesel fuel and incorporate technology to burn it more completely (less exhaust). They are also more responsive and behave more like gasoline engines while retaining their relatively better gas mileage. The ad shows this contrast rather effectively.

The commercial does incidentally show the power of trade dress. It does not show either the Mercedes or Volvo logos and trademarks, but the Volvo is instantly recognizable from its boxy shape. I think the vintage Mercedes has a fairly distinctive appearance from the side, but the commercial does not show its full side profile. Instead it shows the car from the rear and only part of the side profile, and so it is less recognizable. (Perhaps BMW fears Mercedes's wrath more than Volvo's.)

Of course, the narrative arc of BMW's commercial is rather biased and unfair. Diesel fuel is now more refined and cleaner (that's why it is now so expensive relative to gasoline). So some improvement is attributable to the fuel formulation and is not unique to BMW's engineering. Nobody in the 70s and 80s built a decent diesel car at least in comparison to today's versions. BMW's diesels then were every bit as dirty, slow, noisy, etc. as its European rivals. Strangely however, no vintage BMW appears in this ad. Between the visual comparisons and use of David Bowie's Changes, BMW leaves the unfair impression that it uses advanced diesel technology while its identifiable rivals are still using 20-year-old technology. The reality is that every mainstream European car maker offers a diesel car with modern technology that outperforms the vintage cars in the ad.
September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Pierce
Excellent comment, Robert. I'm fine (obviously) with BMW promoting its new diesel technology and comparing it with old diesel technology and all of its baggage. I just question why it used Volvo to do so. Its including Volvo distracts from the message, as the viewer's impression is split between the new diesel vs. old diesel message and the BMW vs. Volvo message. Not to mention the unfairness of its comparison.

I didn't notice the Mercedes.... You are right about the power of Volvo's trade dress. Nary a word or design mark in sight and it's obvious who made that boxy station wagon.
September 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterMichael Atkins
Thank you for your kind words.

I may be more cynical and prone to speculation. But I think BMW would like viewers to take away both impressions you identify from the commercial.

The Mercedes, a 240D (W123) I believe, first appears at the 9-second mark showing a partial driver's side profile. At the 10-second mark, the commercial cuts to an interior view showing the dashboard hula girl with a serious shake, and at the 11-second mark, the point of view is outside the car again but tightly focused on the driver's face before cutting to the Volvo. The best shot of the Mercedes appears at the 18-second mark. It shows the car from the rear, and so it is more recognizable. It is the same car as the one at the 9-second mark because it is a brown car and you can see that dashboard hula girl again.

Ironically the Mercedes W123 is a popular choice for biodiesel conversion. These cars are virtually indestructible and so are relatively common and cheap. They are also apparently easy to convert to biodiesel.
September 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Pierce
My guess is that BMW is picking on Volvo because Volvo is having a lot of trouble staying in business right now. Google volvo layoffs.

Its terrible, because Volvo makes high quality vehicles and industrial equipment that have extremely good safety records and seem to last forever. Maybe thats the REAL reason why BMW hates them!

This is just not a good time to be a car manufacturer, unless you are in India or China, where many people are buying their first cars.
January 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris B.

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