Even in the hyped-up world of advertising, the truth can sometimes get stretched a little too far.
Such was the case with a marketing campaign spotlighting last fall's opening of the Mercedes-Benz Vans plant in North Charleston. The German vehicle maker wanted to tell consumers its Sprinter commercial vans are now being made in America.
Trouble is, most of them are still being imported from Germany.
Mercedes-Benz recently pulled advertisements that say its new Sprinter vans are "Built in the USA" after a consumer watchdog group questioned the claims and threatened to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
The group, Truth in Advertising, called the $16 million marketing campaign "deceptive," adding an investigation shows 90 percent of Sprinters being sold in the U.S. are still being imported from Germany instead of being built from scratch at the manufacturer's North Charleston campus.
"Mercedes-Benz engineered an entire marketing campaign on the false premise that its Sprinter van was built in the USA," said Bonnie Patten, executive director of the nonprofit Truth in Advertising.
Patten said "there's no question consumers were misled by the automaker's deceptive advertising."
Mercedes-Benz Vans, in a statement, said it would modify its ad campaign to focus instead on the 1,300 jobs that will be created at the $500 million North Charleston plant.
Mercedes-Benz Vans "is proud of its investments in the United States and has addressed the concerns raised by Truth in Advertising by modifying the content of some of its marketing material," the vehicle maker said.
Truth in Advertising examined vehicle identification numbers for a sampling of 2,390 new Sprinter vans on sale at Mercedes-Benz dealerships. That investigation showed the vast majority of 2019 models are being imported from Germany as partially assembled vehicles that are then put together in North Charleston.
Only about 10 percent of the vans were built entirely in the Lowcountry, and those vehicles "contain significant non-U.S. components," the consumer group said.
A Mercedes-Benz Vans spokeswoman declined to say how many vehicles are built in North Charleston compared to the number that are being imported and reassembled.
"We can’t share publicly any specific production numbers, but we are advancing along in our ramp up and along the target lines that we have established," spokeswoman Alyssa Bean said during a recent news conference.
She said the goal is to build all Sprinters in North Charleston by the end of 2020.
A State Ports Authority spokeswoman said the agency does not specifically track the number of partially assembled vans Mercedes-Benz imports through the Port of Charleston.
Mercedes-Benz Vans trails only Ford in U.S. cargo van sales, with consumers buying a record 29,786 Sprinters last year. More than 5,600 Sprinters have been sold during the first quarter of this year.
Truth in Advertising said some consumers might have bought Sprinters because they mistakenly believed the vans are U.S. made, adding surveys show consumers have a preference for American-made products.
The consumer group sent a letter to Mercedes-Benz Vans on March 22 threatening to file a complaint with the FTC if the "Made in the USA" ads weren't removed. Mercedes-Benz Vans responded a week later, telling the group it would stop using the ads.
The van maker's "intent has and will be to comply with all regulations controlling the content of its marketing material," John Padgett, a lawyer for Mercedes-Benz Vans, told the consumer group in a March 29 letter.
False "Made in the USA" claims are a growing concern for government regulators, with FTC chairman Joe Simons telling a Senate subcommittee last year that the agency gets "hundreds of complaints a year."
Rohit Chopra, an FTC commissioner, said in a statement last fall that sellers gain an unfair advantage when they falsely market a product as American made.
"Every firm needs to understand that products labeled 'Made in USA' should be made in the USA, and that fake branding will come with real consequences," Chopra said.
The independent Truth in Advertising group was founded in 2012 in to protect consumers from false and misleading marketing.
Mercedes-Benz Vans took over the former Western Star truck factory in North Charleston in 2007 to reassemble vans made in Germany and shipped in pieces through the Port of Charleston. The company last year completed a $500 million makeover and expansion at the plant, where it plans to eventually produce all Sprinters for the U.S. and Canadian market.