Car Company’s ‘Built in the USA’ Claims Crash After TINA Inquiry

Advertising Law

Mercedes-Benz halted claims that one of its vehicles was “built in the USA” after an investigation by the organization Truth in Advertising (TINA).

The nonprofit consumer advocacy group sent the car company a letter in March about its multimillion-dollar national marketing campaign promoting the 2019 Sprinter van as “Built in the USA” at Mercedes’ newly remodeled South Carolina plant.

Despite the claim—found on television, Mercedes’ website and social media platforms as well as in Internet ads and radio commercials—a sampling of 2,390 2019 Sprinter vans offered for sale online by Mercedes-Benz dealerships in the United States found that 90% were imported from Germany, TINA said.

Even those vans assembled at Mercedes’ South Carolina plant contain significant non-U.S. components, the organization alleged.

These claims ran afoul of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) “Made in USA” marketing standard, which views “Built in the USA” claims as synonymous, TINA said. The FTC “only allows such an unqualified origin claim when the promoted product is ‘all or virtually all’ made in the United States, meaning that ‘all significant parts and processing that go into the product must be of U.S. origin’ and that the product contains ‘no—or negligible—foreign content,’” TINA wrote.

Based on the results of its investigation, TINA warned Mercedes that it planned to notify the FTC that the car company was engaged in a deceptive marketing campaign unless Mercedes removed the challenged marketing materials, put measures in place to ensure no future misrepresentations occur and made an effort to alert Sprinter van customers of the issue.

Two weeks later, TINA said Mercedes had made several changes to its marketing for the 2019 Sprinter. A television commercial was pulled, the national origin claims were removed from a national radio ad, and the challenged claims were taken off the car company’s website and social media pages.

In a statement to TINA, Mercedes said it was “modifying the current marketing campaign to focus on the jobs and capital invested in the United States. [Mercedes] is proud of its investments in the United States and has addressed the concerns raised by [TINA] by modifying the content of some of its marketing material. As always, [Mercedes] desires to accurately describe its products and technology to its valued customers.”

Based on the car company’s changes to its advertising, TINA “decided not to elevate its warning letter to a complaint to the FTC at this time,” the organization said.

To read TINA’s warning letter, click here.

Why it matters: The Mercedes investigation resulted in TINA’s sixth legal action centered on deceptive national origin claims, the organization said, with four of those cases referred to the FTC. Between the consumer advocacy organization, consumer class actions, self-regulatory actions and FTC enforcement, marketers should be very careful when making national origin claims.