Should astronauts be in bed with advertisers?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) thinks not. It is distancing itself from a Hyundai Motor Co. campaign that attempted to use the romance of space to sell cars.
Earlier this month, Hyundai released an online video showing its cars writing a 5.5-square-kilometre message, "Steph [loves] You!" in tire tracks in the sand of a dried out lake bed. It was written by a 13-year-old American girl for "her astronaut father working at the International Space Station," according to Hyundai.
What happened on the ground at the Delamar dry lake bed in the Nevada desert appears to be real, verified by the Guinness world record team as the largest-ever tire track image.
But there are questions about what happened in the sky.
According to NASA spokeswoman Jennifer Knotts, no NASA employees appeared in the video. Hyundai's communications team would not identify the astronaut's full name when asked.
NASA advised Hyundai about video footage of the ISS, and of Earth as seen from the ISS, which is in the public domain and could be used in the ad. When Hyundai contacted NASA a number of months ago, "they told us they were going to use an actor to stage the scene [aboard the ISS,]" Ms. Knotts said.
In an e-mail, Hyundai's global public relations team said it "cannot comment" on questions about Stephanie's father's role on the ISS; whether it used NASA's public domain footage; who filmed any other footage; and if so, how Hyundai secured permission to film aboard the ISS.
"All we can say is that it's based on a real story," the e-mail stated.
However, Ms. Knotts said none of NASA's astronauts were involved, on an authorized or unauthorized basis.
"Because of the nature of what it was, NASA could not participate," Ms. Knotts said in an interview. "… As a government entity, we cannot endorse a product."
That goes for astronauts as well, she said.
"We all take ethics classes," she said. "… You can't use your government position for financial gain."
The video itself does not show many details: The "astronaut" is shown in profile, in shadow. In a scene where he shows off the picture he took of his daughter's message, his face is out of the frame.
If Hyundai used an actor to simulate shots on board the ISS, as Ms. Knotts said was their plan as told to NASA, that might not necessarily get around the rules – particularly if the family was compensated for their appearance in the video.
Hyundai would not respond to questions about whether members of the family were paid.
ABC News reported that Terry Virts, a NASA astronaut currently aboard the ISS, has a teenage daughter named Stephanie. Mr. Virts's Twitter account, where he posts daily, has contained no mention of the video since it was released.
The emotional story has helped Hyundai's video gain millions of views. It was designed to show a human side to Hyundai's brand, Dan Buckley, vice-president of ad agency and Hyundai subsidiary Innocean Worldwide Canada, said in an interview last week. (The video was produced by a team out of South Korea.)
"When we put a man on the moon, it was connected globally with culture and everyone who was glued to their TV," Mr. Buckley said. (All questions about the campaign details were referred to Hyundai's global PR team.) "There's that ongoing aura of what's out there, and what's possible. That has a real connection."
This may not seem like it sells cars, but there are a number of marketers who have seen a sales impact as a result of building a deeper connection with consumers. People who have a real affinity for a brand are sometimes more likely to spend their money with that company.
That is likely the reason why Hyundai wants to keep the focus on the emotional core of the story, and not on questions about whether it skirted NASA's rules – or even faked some shots it claimed were taken on the space station.
Technically, Hyundai may not have done anything wrong. Most industry regulations on truth in advertising relate to claims about the products or services themselves, not how closely a supposedly "real" story hews to actual reality. Canada's Code of Advertising Standards, for example, mandates that "all pertinent details of an advertised offer must be clearly and understandably stated," but does not explicitly regulate details about a story in an ad, provided it does not misrepresent the product or service being advertised.
Advertisers frequently spin pretty fiction to entice consumers. But considering the current preoccupation with authenticity, brands may want to be cautious about promoting true stories that could raise viewers' skepticism, lest they tarnish the emotional connection they are trying to forge.
Whether or not the campaign violated NASA's rules, it is clear that the space agency does not want advertising to encroach upon its missions.
"They can use facts," NASA's Ms. Knotts said. "… If something has been used in space, that company can say it. We're not going to go out and say it for them."
And it appears some companies have marketed that connection a little too well for NASA's liking.
"Whatever you do, don't mention Tang to astronauts," Ms. Knotts said. "… That's not necessarily what we want to be known for."