You can call it hype or you can call it embellishment. Whatever you call it, the results are the same. Volvo went too far and the company is now debating what it should do next.
The problem apparently originated with an overzealous advertising agency. For reasons that do not seem clear to anyone, the agency made no effort at all to keep their actions secret. In addition to the production crew there were more than 400 extras on hand to watch these proceedings.In front of hundred of witnesses, they doctored the cars to be used in a series of television and print advertisements. The "brand X" cars had some of their vertical supports cut by a torch. The Volvo on the other hand had its supports reinforced.
Then these cars were parked side by side and a "monster truck" was driven over them. The "brand X" cars caved in. The Volvo did not. The idea, of course, was to show the "safety" built into a Volvo.
Why, when Volvo already had an outstanding reputation for safety, was such deception attempted, especially before so many people?
The answer that most observers come up with is that somewhere along the line somebody lost control. The advertising agency involved, Scali, McCabe, Sloves of New York, has already resigned from the Volvo account. The agency will lose some $40 million in annual billings.
The real irony is the fact that the agency had handled the account for 23 years and was largely responsible for the excellent reputation Volvo enjoyed.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Volvo deserves accolades for safety. In the NHTSA crash test, the Volvo scored well above average. Volvos have been high on the "buy" list of those who are safety conscious. The "phony" ad has not helped this hard-earned image at all.
When confronted with the evidence, Volvo officials immediately agreed to make amends. The commercial was produced in Texas. It was the Texas attorney general who brought charges against the company. Extended litigation was avoided when Volvo agreed to stop using the ads, to run corrective advertising and to pay more than $300,000 to the Texas attorney general to cover the costs of the state's investigation.
To their credit, the top executives at Volvo in Sweden have begun much needed damage control. Chairman Pehr Gyellenhammar has called for an investigation. Gyellenhammer calls the situation distasteful and unacceptable. There is little doubt that there will be some high level dismissals.
Volvo was having some problems in the U.S. market. The safety theme that was so important to Volvo's success was being used by more and more manufacturers. Mercedes Benz and BMW, which generally sell more expensive cars than Volvo, were making inroads as Volvo customers grew older and more affluent.
The requirements by NHTSA for more safety items in cars sold here encouraged most firms to accent the positive. As long as you had to put the safety in, you might as well tell the public about it in the most positive way.
Some experts feel this may have been the motivation for what everyone seems to agree was a stupid decision. These same authorities say the real culprit was a breakdown in the quality control over the advertising agency's zeal.
The latest consumer surveys from the J.D. Power organization show that quality control is the No. 1 issue in automobile manufacturing today. Volvo is now devising ways to make certain it also has the best quality control over its advertising.