Commercial airlines historically have responded to disasters by pulling their advertising for several weeks after the incident. If anything, General Motors took the opposite tack when it was cast in the role of the villian by a stunning $4.9 billion judgement in a Los Angeles Superior Court two weeks ago.

“Time magazine this week has a two-page spread on the Chevrolet Malibu,” says Jeanne Holliday, marketing and advertising reporter for Automotive News magazine. That indicates to her GM’s belief the court decision would not be linked to a brand or make of car.

Yet she also points out that national advertising is planned months in advance, making it difficult to pull promotions at the last minute.

Though newspapers are reluctant to discuss ad lineage, auto ads in South Sound publications appear to have remained consistent. If anything, there have been more ads than in previous weeks.

While many of his colleagues in the area prefer not to discuss the phenomenon, GM dealer David Cornforth, vice president of Cornforth Campbell Pontiac-Buick-GMC, is forthright on the subject.

“I don’t think the public is going to change its buying decisions because of a 20-year-old car crash,” he says.

The 20-year-old case in question was a 1979 crash in which a drunk driver doing 70 mph hit the back of a Chevrolet Malibu that was stopped at a red light. The Malibu’s exploding gasoline severely burned all six passengers of the car.

The verdict in the Los Angeles trial turned on the plaintiffs’ contention that the fire could have been prevented by an $8.59 part GM allegedly chose not to install despite its own internal estimates that failure to do so would result in 500 deaths a year.

In a press release issued after the verdict, GM expresses sympathy for the victims of the crash but denied responsibility, saying a drunk driver rather than inherent safety flaws was responsible for their plight. In fact, the release emphasized, the vehicle had proven itself safe in rear-end crash up to 50 mph, a standard few other cars met in 1979.

Cornforth suggests there’s room for culpability elsewhere as well.

“Congress will pass regulations that manufacturers are required to meet,” he says. “Then the courts blame the industry for complying with congressional law.”

The public understands the difficulties posed by governmental demands, Cornforth says.

Bob Monaghan, sales manager for First National Auto Lease in Tacoma, says he has witnessed nothing that would contradict Cornforth’s conclusions.

“I haven’t noticed any changes locally or nationally concerning GM products,” he says of the recent court decision.

Safety ratings, on the other hand, can affect customer choices, he says. But that’s only for a few weeks after they are issued, he adds, then you don’t see any reaction until a new set of ratings is issued.

By Brent Snyder, Business Examiner staff