Winfrey's widely covered Pontiac giveaway prompts questions over marketing's value

NBC's Today show, like the rest of the world, ran extensive coverage of Oprah Winfrey's great Pontiac giveaway, including an analysis with advertising executive and talk-show host Donny Deutsch.

NBC's Today show, like the rest of the world, ran extensive coverage of Oprah Winfrey's great Pontiac giveaway, including an analysis with advertising executive and talk-show host Donny Deutsch.

hen Katie Couric asked him if this will help Pontiac sell more cars, Deutsch said that these things are tough to isolate. "I mean, when you see a Pontiac commercial on television, does that translate into buying cars?" he asked. "I think what this leaves is a kind of goodwill. Pontiac is top-of-mind. And somehow I remember Oprah/Pontiac, Oprah/Pontiac. If I'm a woman, that's a good thing."

At the other end of the PR spectrum, we read the remarks of LA City Controller Laura Chick, who says that her investigation into city contracts has been prompted, in part, by the need to answer the question, "What are we getting for our money?"

In both examples, PR and marketing "laypersons" (Couric is probably no slouch in that department - though she did rather naively say in the interview, "I'm always curious about advertising") have raised questions about ROI.

Putting to one side the complexity of the LA issue, Chick, as simply a "client," has a vested interest in the question. Like many clients, she is not interested to hear why there are not simple answers. Responsible for public funds, she has taxpayers to answer to.

Couric's public is no less demanding, even though the Pontiac campaign is not funded by tax dollars. Her question, instead, asks for proof that the massive amounts of coverage garnered by Oprah and Pontiac has meaning beyond the "stunt."

Post-Jayson Blair, even '60 Minutes' faces scrutiny

How fascinating to watch the early stages of what could turn into an ugly reputation battle. CBS News' 60 Minutes, accused of relying on forged documents to back up a story about President Bush's National Guard service record, has so far resisted calls for an investigation, and stands by its reporting.

Good luck with that plan. Guilty until proven innocent is the rule now, particularly as media companies collectively pay for the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times. Add the prism of perceived journalistic bias - during a particularly fractious campaign period - and a media company under scrutiny has little hope of being able to ignore the clamor forever.

This is a potential crisis that moved rapidly from the blogs to The Wall Street Journal, where, presumably, corporate execs will only now start paying attention.

That's when advertisers start to get tetchy, of course. Yes, we know, 60 Minutes is way above such mundane concerns. But it's not immune and has far more to lose, ultimately, in the reputation stakes.

There was a time when news organizations, while never lovingly embraced by corporate or political institutions, were imbued with a kind of credibility through the benign regard of the "general public." Journalism's role within a free society was less confused by scandal and the increasingly blurred corporate lines within the major media organizations.

These days, CBS' "broadcast-and-be damned" bravado seems, at best, rather quaint, and probably not sustainable.

- Julia Hood

Next week's News Analysis, which this week features LA City Controller Laura Chick, will be a Q&A with Fleishman-Hillard and Lee Andrews Group.

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