Is false advertising truthful if it is stupendously false?

What prompts this question is a full-page advertisement in today’s (July 11, 2007) Wall Street Journal by BASF, “The Chemical Company.” The ad features a big yellow ear of corn, smack dab in the middle of a mostly blank page, with a caption in bold letters underneath: “48 miles per kernel.”

This is so far from the truth — it takes about 450 lbs. of corn to make enough fuel to fill up the 25-gallon tank of an SUV — that I suppose BSAF could say, if accused of false advertising, “just kidding.” But is that being straight with the public?

At the bottom of the page, the ad says, “Learn more at” So I visited the site. There’s not even an estimate of miles per bushel of corn or per gallon of ethanol. Rather, the site boasts of the “herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, plant regulators and seed technologies” the company develops to improve corn yields, allowing more corn to be used to make ethanol without “reducing the crops intended for the kitchen table.”

Well, why not come out and say in the full-page ad that BASF produces “herbicides,” “fungicides,” and “insecticides” for a living? Why instead foster the impression that you are in the business of increasing the fuel efficiency of ethanol, that maybe you’re on the verge of turning ethanol into a miracle fuel delivering miles per kernel?

Also, the real consumer issue not whether ethanol will leave fewer crops for the kitchen table, but whether breakfast foods and everything else made from corn will cost consumers a lot more.

Food prices have been rising faster than the general rate of inflation, and federal ethanol policy, which artificially stimulates demand for corn, is one of the causes.