Real People, Real Cars: A Look Back

This article originally appeared at i711.com.

It was ten years ago this month that one of the strangest stories I’ve ever worked on began to unravel.

In late 1996, Saturn, the car company, was in the midst of its “Real People, Real Cars” advertising campaign. This ad campaign featured actual car owners who were not actors. One night, my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I were watching a taped show when we saw Holly Daniel in the commercial. As we watched it, my stomach churned. The commercial featured Daniel, wearing a white shirt and blue denim jumper, standing in a picturesque environment with her Saturn car behind her. She signed, with subtitles appearing onscreen:

My name is Holly Daniel
and wherever I go,
people ask me about my Saturn.

But it takes too long
to spell out S-A-T-U-R-N,
so I made my own sign
“Saturn!”
(shows her made-up sign)

That way I have more time
to drive.
Ha. Ha. Ha. (
fingerspells ha-ha-ha)

The Saturn SLI $11,995

I had a gut feeling that Daniel, of St. Francisville, La., was not deaf. Her signing gave her away, although I did wonder if she was maybe deaf and had learned American Sign Language (ASL) later in life. I decided to check my facts before I assumed anything or offended anyone.

I called Saturn the next day and spoke with a representative, who assured me Daniel was deaf, and that she wasn’t an actress. That’s when I learned that the ad campaign featured actual Saturn owners. Fine, okay. The issue, for me, shifted to her invented sign. I was increasingly frustrated by the proliferation of commercials inaccurately portraying ASL, and I didn’t like that she had “invented” a sign without gaining community approval. I decided to send a letter to Saturn.

Next, I sent an e-mail to relatives and friends, encouraging them to write or call Saturn. One of the people I e-mailed was the managing editor of DeafNation Newspaper. He mistakenly thought it was a letter to the editor, and printed it in the next issue. I got a few responses, but nothing could beat the e-mail from a deaf Louisiana man, who insisted that Daniel was actually a hearing (uncertified) interpreter at a school and had been his interpreter in college.

Suddenly, everything changed, and I began one of the most bizarre journeys of my writing career. Until that point, I had read articles here and there about Daniel, who never once said she was hearing. Two weeks later, I had at least six sources, including a pastor, who said Daniel was hearing.

I contacted Daniel, who insisted people were confusing her with a twin sister named Helen. I asked for a picture of them together that I could run with my article, and she said she had lost everything in a fire. I then asked if she could send me a copy of her birth certificate, and she did. Both Helen’s and her certificates were absolutely identical, except for the names. Even the signatures were dotted and crossed in the same spots. A friend who worked at a police department ran the certificates for me and confirmed that there was only a single birth.

Saturn, throughout this entire investigation, kept hanging up on me. What bothered me the most, other than Daniel’s lies, was that she earned thousands of dollars for this ad (one source says $75,000). Had she been an actress, I’d have been less disgruntled. Since the ad campaign featured “real” people, and Daniel was lying, I knew I had to get to the bottom of this mystery.

I talked with Daniel several times on the phone and via Instant Messenger. One day, I got a call from a reporter at the Baton Rouge Advocate. That morning, he had met with Daniel, who said she “had no idea why anyone thought she was deaf.” Never mind all the evidence I had where she said she was deaf, and the many articles printed by other publications about her being deaf. Meanwhile, my conversations with Daniel became more and more bizarre. There was one night where she said she had “talked with God” and would come forward to apologize to the Deaf community the next day.

In late spring, I got news that Saturn finally pulled the ad. The advertising executive called me, eating crow. What was even more odd is that after I did the three articles on this, I learned that Daniel had pretended to be deaf on many occasions as far back as two years prior to being invited to do the Saturn ad. Make what you will of that.

I’ve written a book about this, but it’s not published yet. I’m sharing this story at state conferences, interpreting programs and schools across the nation this year, for a very basic reason: we can’t let this fraud happen ever again. Besides, with all the recent vlogs and blogs, the emergence of the concept of Deafhood, and the Gallaudet protests, it’s a fantastic time for us to re-examine our community values.

And the question everyone asks: whatever happened to Holly Daniel? For the answer, you’ll have to read the book or come to my presentation.

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