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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, December 17, 2001

'Made in USA' tag can be deceiving

By Theresa Howard
USA Today

Many marketers this holiday season are wrapping themselves in the flag — pitching patriotic goods or creating ads for anything and everything built on images of Americana.

But the message can be dubious: Consumers may be surprised to find that those star-spangled goods are being made or heavily sourced far from the United States.

That has prompted the Federal Trade Commission to issue an alert reminding markets what is required in order to bear a "Made in the USA" label.

In addition, despite all the flag-draping that has occurred since the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal law regulates commercial use of the flag itself.

Beyond that, some marketing experts question when it is appropriate to use the flag itself.

"Waving the flag is one of the dumbest things you can do," said Nancy Bachrach, chief marketing officer at Grey Worldwide in New York. "It's counterproductive to wave the flag if it doesn't fit the brand. There is such a thing as truth in advertising, and the brands that are falsely appropriating the flag will prove that because consumers will reject it."

Appropriateness and the law, however, aren't stopping marketers from selling red, white and blue — from holiday lights to umbrellas. To what degree are these items representative of America, or made in America?

Tommy Hilfiger and Wrangler, for instance, are all about America in their ads — but most of their products are made offshore.

Wrangler's parent still makes about 40 percent of its jeans brands in the United States but announced last month that it would step up manufacturing offshore to save money.

"They could be treading on thin ice," said Phil Dusenberry, chairman of BBDO North America. "That's not good PR."

After marketers asked the FTC to clarify its requirements for putting "Made in the USA" labels on clothing, the agency responded with a warning that "all significant parts, processing and labor that go into the product must be of U.S. origin" for it to legally bear the label.

"We just wanted to remind people of the legal standards if they were interested in making the claim," said Elaine Kolish, the FTC's associate director for enforcements.

Beyond the label rules, marketers technically are restricted by federal law from using the American flag in advertising. According to Title 4, Section 8 of the United States Code, "The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever."

This law, however, dates back to the 1920s and goes largely unenforced. It does, however, remain on the books, and copies are available from the United States Government Printing Office.

In the meantime, shoppers who truly wish to buy American might carefully check the contents of what they are buying. Designer Christopher Radko has produced a line of patriotic tree ornaments, including "Brave Heart," "Lady Liberty" and "Lighting the Way." But the pricey ornaments ($34 to $46) decorated with American icons are made in Poland.

Shoppers also might appreciate some of the irony within the marketing activities in which they participate. Circuit City stores, for instance, are allowing customers to record 30-second messages to send to U.S. troops abroad. However, the DVD technology being used to transmit those messages was developed by Sony, a Japanese firm.