General Motors Corp.'s Saturn subsidiary last week pulled a regional TV commercial featuring a Saturn owner using sign language after beginning an investigation into allegations about her deafness.
Saturn and agency Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, also canceled scheduled future buys for a national magazine ad showing the owner, Holly Daniel, 26, who works as an interpreter for a deaf student in Baton Rouge, La.
`SHE'S NOT DEAF'
The TV spot, running since last fall, has no voice-over, just Ms. Daniel signing the ad message and supers translating her message. The print ad says Ms. Daniel brought in her Saturn for service because she had a problem with her stereo--"she explained [in sign language that] she liked the music's vibration."
"She is not deaf," said a woman at Ms. Daniel's home in Louisiana who identified herself as her mother, Katie Daniel. "But when I read the [print] ad, it implied she is deaf."
Holly Daniel, reached later at the same location, talked to Advertising Age by phone and said she did not know whether Saturn or Riney officials knew she could hear and talk.
"I don't know what they know," she said. "I get conflicting reports from them about that."
She would not discuss the situation at length.
Greg Martin, a marketing department spokesman at Saturn, said neither the company nor Riney has heard back from Ms. Daniel despite repeated attempts to contact her at home since the disclosure.
Ms. Daniel said she hadn't received any messages that either had called her.
The Saturn advertising with Ms. Daniel had been running since last fall; the spread is appearing in Time, Newsweek and Cosmopolitan.
Both the carmaker and agency maintain they believed Ms. Daniel to be deaf.
"It was our intent with this ad, as with all our ads, to portray a positive Saturn experience. We're deeply embarrassed that this experience was diminished because of some alleged misrepresentation," Mr. Martin said.
James Farmer, VP-corporate communications at Saturn Corp., said Riney has the responsibility of getting signed assurances from the people used in its ads, adding that "we don't know the procedures Riney goes through."
As regular procedure, Riney checks an ad subject's drivers license and driving record. Also, an independent research company interviews the Saturn owner. However, "Do we call her doctor? No we don't," said Tom Else, senior VP-account director on Saturn at Riney.
Saturn solicits ad subjects from its dealers, who have become aggressive in offering up interesting owners. Ms. Daniel was a customer of Saturn of Baton Rouge.
Riney produces about 20 spots each year, both for national and regional use, with owners as well as Saturn and dealership employees.
In the past five years, it has produced 115 such commercials, Mr. Else said.
Mr. Else said that during the shoot for the Daniel commercial, several loud booms startled others on the set but not Ms. Daniel.
Doubts arose after Newswaves, a start-up newspaper for the deaf, in its January premiere interviewed Ms. Daniel, who said by sign that she was deaf from birth, taught high-school nuclear science and math, and was taking night courses at Louisiana State University to earn a master's degree.
That story unraveled this month after Trudy Suggs, a deaf reporter at the publication DeafNation, received e-mails from several Baton Rouge area sources who knew Ms. Daniel and said she wasn't deaf.
Last week, Ms. Suggs told Ad Age Ms. Daniel explained to her at the time that her e-mail sources must have met her twin sister, Heidi, who can hear but was working in Japan as a computer programmer.
Katie Daniel last week said there is no twin. The Texas Department of Health said there's a record of Holly Daniel's birth in Harris County but no record of a twin named Heidi.
Katie Daniel also said her daughter isn't working toward a master's degree. "She's only talked about it. She said it's something she'd like to do," the mother said.
At a Saturn gathering last June in San Diego, Ms. Daniel made an emotional presentation on stage to about 2,000 Saturn dealers and executives from Saturn and Riney. She used only sign language accompanied by a translator, Mr. Martin said.
"We didn't suspect Holly," Mr. Else said, questioning how Ms. Daniel could misrepresent herself "to 2,000 gullible Saturn team members" at that meeting.
Ms. Daniel responded last week that she spoke to many Saturn people using her voice at the San Diego gathering but not while onstage.
Danny David, a service technician at Saturn of Baton Rouge, was Ms. Daniel's translator in San Diego. Mr. David, who is not deaf but signs, was asked by another employee to translate for Ms. Daniel when she came in for service on her car about two years ago.
"As far as I knew, she was deaf, a heavily [hearing] impaired customer, and I dealt with her that way," he said.
Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo.
Copyright March 1997, Crain Communications Inc.