At the Cannes Lions earlier this year, the ‘Tramp A Benz’ campaign appeared to have everything you would look for in an award-winning campaign. Big brand, striking idea (where a blogger attempts to hitchhike across Europe by Mercedes-Benz vehicles only), and the kind of flawless execution you would expect from one of Germany’s premier ad agencies, Jung von Matt. The campaign was one of a handful that won a coveted Gold PR Lion, but in my discussions with judges and other senior PR industry figures, it was easy to discern some unease with the programme. Those tremors have now exploded into a confrontation that rather neatly depicts the schism which sometimes separates the ‘earned media’ efforts of PR people versus their advertising peers. The unease stemmed from one of the campaign’s central conceits - at no point is it disclosed that the blogger is working on behalf of Jung von Matt and Mercedes-Benz. Disconcertingly, this reminds me of Edelman’s discredited 2006 programme for Wal-Mart, which saw the creation of a fake blog, manned by ‘working families’ who were paid by the agency. The German Public Relations Council (DRPR), accordingly, has publicly “rebuked” the effort and called for the award to be rescinded. The organisation notes that the work represents an “infringement of the principles of transparency and clarity of origin of the respective PR campaign.”
“During the PR campaign that lasted for several weeks, blogger Stefan Gbureck and Jung von Matt purposefully placed brand messages of the agency client Mercedes-Benz and contributed to the branding of the company. At the same time, neither the responsible agency, nor the company itself were identifiable as the sender and financial supporter of the campaign. Thus, national and international PR principles were violated.”
“From our point of view it would be best if the jury in Cannes decided according to international standards,” added DRPR chairman Richard Gaul. Cannes Lions has opted to do nothing. A festival spokesperson points out that “the work abided by all the conditions of entry into the PR Lions so the Lion remains in place.” That is undoubtedly so, but the issue in question must be whether those regulations have been designed with the PR discipline in mind. It would not be the first time that the competition has attracted scrutiny for attempting to shoehorn PR entries into a more advertising-minded template. Jung von Matt, meanwhile, declines to comment. We reached out to MSLGroup Germany CEO Wigan Salazar who expressed his agreement with the DRPR stance.  “The Tramp a Benz campaign did not comply with our industry standards with regard to transparency. It's really a pity, since the campaign idea is good and would have worked had it been done in a more transparent fashion.” If Jung von Matt were to comment, it might defend the campaign based on its use of an element of surprise. If I’m not mistaken, NAB Bank’s PR Grand Prix winner began with a ‘fake tweet’ that, soon enough, was exposed as being part of the company’s marketing campaign. Does that defence apply to the Mercedes-Benz campaign? I’m not so sure.