INSIDE THE MIX: Fallout over Corvette ad implies that GM's PR and advertising are at odds with each other

As the marketing industry embraces integration, we could be forgiven for thinking that we are living in a kind of multidisciplinary Mayberry.

As the marketing industry embraces integration, we could be forgiven for thinking that we are living in a kind of multidisciplinary Mayberry.

But then a story about a young boy flying a car through city skies hit the news and reminded me that from time to time, PR and advertising can end up apparently at odds with one another.

GM's ad for its 2005 Corvette, informally called "A Boy's Dream" and created by IPG's Campbell-Ewald, was decried by Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety for depicting an underage driver.

Joe Jacuzzi, Chevrolet's communications director, was widely quoted stating what seems obvious: that the ad wasn't meant to reflect a real-life situation, but that GM eventually pulled it in response to the letter and other consumer feedback.

A great number of stories and headlines played on the name of the ad, describing GM's "Dream" as a "PR nightmare." None that I could see went into detail about this pronouncement or discussed any tangible PR issues, but I saw that a kind of timeline had been implied: The ad team - both on the agency and client side - went headfirst into this campaign without considering the controversy it would cause (though it was directed by Guy Ritchie - surely they did not expect the Snuggle bear?), and the PR folks were left trying to deal with the aftermath of what appeared to be plain tactlessness.

The tacit assumption here is that PR and advertising are vastly different entities unwittingly caught in the same controversy. Advertising set it up, PR was pulled in to fix it, and that was the first time they'd had anything to do with each other.

And, admittedly, I do find it hard to imagine that this ad came about as a result of one of the multidisciplinary brainstorms we hear about, in which representatives of all marketing areas sit around a table with the client. If it had, would not the PR contingent, as familiar with working on car-safety advocate relationships as they are working on car brands, have raised a concern about the way its young joy rider might be perceived?

Few ads, of course, exist in isolation, and this appears to be no exception. As Jacuzzi told Reuters, "It's a big ad, and it's been airing for a while, but we've got a whole campaign." Corvette celebrated its 50th anniversary just over a year ago, and the PR activities surrounding that occasion are clearly part of the same brand strategy that this latest ad embodies. Indeed, when you look at the "Dream" ad in context with Corvette's brand identity, it works seamlessly. Corvettes elicit enormous emotion from anyone who's owned one - and lustful envy from those who haven't. The fact that a small boy is dreaming about driving a Corvette is not as far-fetched as if the ad had been for, say, a Ford Focus.

While it's naive to think that every ad has the input of PR expertise, it is a shame to see an ad that so fully embodies the essence of a brand - an essence that runs through all its marketing communications - that stopped short of factoring in the essential variable of public perception. And that's something a PR contingent could, and should, provide.

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