Critics Seek to Put Car Ad Into Reverse

Nov 11, 2001 by

By RICHARD LEE COLVIN, Times Education Writer

A national advertising campaign for Mitsubishi Motors of America has come under fire from advocates for the learning disabled who charge that it makes light of the plight of people with dyslexia.

The campaign for the company’s new entry-level sedan, the Lancer, features a picture of the car, which is priced at $14,000 along with the slogan: “It must be dyslexic. It thinks it’s a $41,000 car.”

2001 Lancer

Television ads for the car began running over Labor Day and sparked an immediate and fervent protest via e-mail, fax and telephone.

Advocates for the disabled contend that the protests caused the company to pull the 15-second spots.

But a spokesman for Mitsubishi said the ads ended as scheduled after five days. Billboards featuring the same slogan are up in major markets nationwide, including Los Angeles and Houston, and will remain standing through the end of October, according to the spokesman, Daniel Whelan of the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm.

The company issued a statement expressing its regrets and saying the ad “was not intended in any way to belittle people with dyslexia.”

But many advocates for the learning disabled were not mollified.

“It’s disappointing that Mitsubishi with its millions of dollars to invest in advertising, has chosen to trivialize a serious and lifelong disability in order to sell cars,” Larry Silver, president of the Learning Disabilities Assn. of America, wrote to the company.

Deutsch Inc., an advertising agency with offices in Marina del Rey, produced the campaign. The firm has been best known in the past for its highly successful “It’s the Cheese” slogan for the California Milk Advisory Board.

Eric Hirshberg, the managing partner of the firm, said the agency and Mitsubishi executives discussed in advance whether the campaign might be seen as insensitive and concluded that it wasn’t, he said.

Ironically, Hirshberg is dyslexic, as is about 6% to 10% of the population in the United States.

“I struggled with it mightily as a child, and I overcame it, and I think the ad is hysterical,” he said.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, an antiques dealer who lives near Houston and who helped spark the drive against the advertisements, disagrees.

“I get incensed about this because I know each and every day there’s kids throughout this country who feel the shame and hurt and anger because they’re not being taught to read and accommodations aren’t being made to help them,” Kilpatrick said.

Polls taken by organizations of the disabled have shown that about two-thirds of Americans incorrectly believe dyslexia is associated with low intelligence–a belief that organizations for the dyslexic have been trying to combat.

Kilpatrick, whose eighth-grade son is dyslexic, contacted Mitsubishi after learning of the ad last Tuesday. He then fueled the protest by posting protest letters on an web site he runs that reaches 30,000 education and political insiders nationwide. The heads of the nation’s largest learning disabilities organizations–including the CDaniel Whelan of the Fleishman-Hillard, the International Dyslexia Assn. and the 50,000-member Learning and Disabilities Assn. of America–protested the Mitsubishi ads.

Kilpatrick demanded the company contribute to efforts to raise awareness among parents about the lifelong condition, something that Mitsubishi says it does not intend to do.

The fracas testifies to several realities of modern life. There is the ability of individuals armed with a Web site to generate pressure. There also is the need felt by advertisers to find new ways to cut through the clutter of messages. And, finally, there is the difficulty of being edgy enough to attract attention without offending someone.

Not all advocates for the dyslexic found the campaign offensive. Nancy Von Wald, director of a school in Tucson for children who are dyslexic, thought it humorous and contacted Mitsubishi executives to urge them to keep the ads running.

“Yeah, we all have problems, but why can’t we just deal with it and not take things so seriously,” she said. “If I don’t teach my kids to laugh when they say 14 instead of 41 they’re going to end up with a lot of stress.”

But many advocates said the campaign exploited the common, but incorrect, belief that dyslexia causes people to see letters in reverse order.

“It’s not the people who are dyslexic, but Mitsubishi who got it backward,” said Sally E. Shaywitz, a dyslexia researcher at the Yale University School of Medicine.

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