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Tuesday, September 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mitsubishi's 'dyslexic car' ads ignite protests of insensitivity

Los Angeles Times

A national ad campaign for Mitsubishi Motors of America has been criticized by advocates for the learning disabled who say it makes light 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, with the slogan: "It must be dyslexic. It thinks it's a $41,000 car."

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

Advocates for the disabled claim 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 around the country, including Los Angeles and Houston, and will remain through the end of October, said the spokesman, Daniel Whelan, of the Fleishman-Hillard public-relations firm.

The company issued a statement 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 ... has chosen to trivialize a serious and lifelong disability in order to sell cars," Larry Silver, president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, wrote in a letter to the company.

Deutsch, an ad agency with offices in Marina del Rey, Calif., produced the campaign.

Eric Hirshberg, managing partner of the firm, said the Mitsubishi campaign evolved from a joke that an ad writer made that the Lancer is a car that is equipped like models priced far higher.

The agency and Mitsubishi executives discussed in advance whether the campaign might be seen as insensitive and concluded it wasn't, he said.

Hirshberg himself is dyslexic, as is 6 to 10 percent 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 campaign against the ads, disagreed.

"I get incensed about this because I know each and every day there's kids throughout this country who feel the shame and hurt," Kilpatrick said.

Kilpatrick, whose eighth-grade son is dyslexic, contacted Mitsubishi after learning of the ad last Tuesday. He fueled the protest by posting protest letters on an education-news Web site he runs that reaches 30,000 education and political insiders nationwide.

Not all advocates for the dyslexic found the campaign offensive. Nancy Von Wald, director of a school in Tucson, Ariz., for children who are dyslexic, thought it humorous. She contacted Mitsubishi executives and told 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."

Many advocates said the campaign exploited the incorrect belief that dyslexia causes people to see letters in reverse order.

Researchers have concluded dyslexia stems from a neurological condition that makes it difficult to break words down into sounds and to associate them with letters.

"Dyslexia ... has nothing to do with reversals," said Sally Shaywitz, a leading dyslexia researcher at Yale University School of Medicine. "It's not the people who are dyslexic but Mitsubishi who got it backward."

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