THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Cheesy come-on: Buy a car, get a lot of worthless junk

Just for reading this column, you'll get a $250 shopping spree. Okay, not really. But it would be an effective way to get you to read this, wouldn't it?

Indeed, that was the enticement that got Paula Peterson of Charlottesville to head into Price Kia on Pantops to test drive a Sedona minivan– a vehicle that she ended up purchasing. 

Pretty effective marketing.

My letter carrier routinely delivers these auto dealer pitches promising various things in exchange for a test drive. Just last week, for example, one from Brown's Toyota promised a "Wal-Mart gift card valued up to $100" just for taking a test drive. (I had to search around on the mailer a bit to locate the fine print, but it does indeed state the "up to $100" Wal-Mart gift cards "range in value of $5-$100.")

While I'm not in the market for a car, my weekends are usually pretty dull, and when I get these mailers I'm sometimes tempted to kill a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon test driving a car and getting the gift. A shopping spree would be nice.

But we all know that things that sound too good to be true probably are, so I've found more productive ways to pass my weekend afternoons.

Thanks to Peterson, who says she "would like to help alert other consumers of this bad gimmick they use," I now know I haven't missed much.

Following her test drive and Sedona purchase (although the purchase was not required to get the shopping spree), the dealership instructed Peterson to contact the fulfillment center of Tampa, Forida-based Autosolutions, a car dealership marketing firm. About two weeks later, Peterson received a card directing her to an online shopping site,

It's a pretty pitiful site. It seems mostly like a random collection of over-priced ancient software and out-of-date CDs and DVDs. Here, for example, is a sampling of what Peterson was able to pick up for her $250 credit:

Nine issues of Working Mother magazine, for which she was debited $32 (the actual cost of a subscription is $9.97) and 12 issues of Parents magazine, for which she was debited $42 (the actual cost of a subscription is $7.50).

To add insult to injury, Peterson never received either of these subscriptions, and neither publication has a record of an order being placed on her behalf.

Other choices were several CDs ranging from $19.95 to $29.95 each. One of these, I Can Help Toddler Songs, consists entirely of free downloaded songs available from Toddler Music Downloads. Other CDs are available elsewhere on the Web for similarly low prices, and several are so old that they will not run on modern computers.

Last but not least, and my personal favorite, is the Pilates for Beginners DVD. As Peterson explains, "I was charged $49.95. This DVD was taped from a 1998 video, and you can even see the TV they were taping from on the [image]."

For its part, Price Kia's general manager, Sandy Fewell, says that while Price gave away hundreds of shopping sprees, they've had "not one single complaint." Fewell notes that while Peterson may be unhappy with her items, she still got them for free, and adds, "We've had customers who called who asked for additional" shopping sprees.

He suggests Peterson's complaints might be sour grapes over a separate, unrelated legal dispute she has had with the dealership.

Speculation over Peterson's motivation aside, Price Kia has not, as far as I can tell, done anything wrong or deceptive. The dealership provided Peterson with exactly what was promised. Outside the unfilled magazine subscriptions, the sin here, if there is one, lies in the cheesiness and bad taste of the shopping spree website and, by extension, of the marketing pitch. 

But this, as Fewell accurately notes, depends upon the "perception of the customer." 

What? A cheesy pitch to sell cars! Shall we stop the presses?

Got a consumer situation? Call the Hook newsroom at 434-295-8700x405 or e-mail the Tough Customer directly.