It seemed like a fun tale for any newspaper’s Saturday edition.

Red Dwarf fan Alex Dowling had set off for Comic-Con – which took place last weekend in Glasgow – only to break down near the Angel Of The North.

He called out the AA, as you do, but when the rescue firm’s mechanic George Flinton arrived he was flabbergasted to see Dowling’s vehicle: a 15ft long replica of Starbug, the bright green shuttlecraft from the TV sci-fi comedy series.

Fortunately, the patrolman wasn’t fazed (or phasered) to see the way Dowling had “remodelled his car”. He got the hapless geek back on the road and all was well.

Except not a word of it seems to have been true. The press release – presented without caveat to UK news desks – was an elaborate fiction concocted to promote a new advertisement from the AA which hit TV screens this week.

Dowling’s “unusual breakdown” occurred near the Angel Of The North while en route to Glasgow, the breathless press release from London’s Splendid Communications explained.

“An AA patrol was sent to rescue the ‘spaceship’ in Newcastle ... George Flinton, AA mechanic from York, said: ‘It’s not every day you get to repair a giant green spaceship that’s broken down on the side of the road! It was definitely one of the most extraordinary recoveries I’ve had to do in my career, and one I won’t forget’.”

Alarm bells rang. The vehicle pictured could not possibly be legal to drive on UK roads. It seemed to have go-kart wheels. It had no obvious location for a driver to sit. It had no number plates.

All in all, any responsible mechanic would have told the driver in no uncertain terms to get that monstrosity off the road rather than rushing to "repair" it.

And this “vehicle” was clearly not “by the side of the road”, but in a car park. Lovely pictures, though, suspiciously perfectly framed in front of the Angel Of The North. Yet how is that en route to Glasgow?

The press release didn’t say where “Alex Dowling” was from. Strangely, there was no reference to him anywhere online. Surely if someone had converted their car into a “working” model of a spaceship, someone must have written about it – or even mentioned it on social media – before.

There was a video attached to the press release claiming to be sourced from social media. A driver and his passenger, startled by the sight of a green spaceship, had pulled off the motorway to post footage of a rueful looking “Dowling”.

Luckily @JackMarge, who posted the clip, is a professional photographer who follows and is followed by a number of employees of Splendid Communications. What a coincidence!

So I asked Splendid Communications if I could follow up on Dowling’s remarkable story, and clarify some of the fuzzier details. They told me, without irony, that the AA was the UK’s “most trusted” car recovery service and was partnering with stars of Red Dwarf for a new advert. “This follows last week’s news where the AA fooled unsuspected drivers with an out-of-this-world breakdown, ahead of the new campaign airing on TV.”

I don’t know if they fooled any drivers, but they certainly conned elements of the UK media. The Herald wasn’t taken in, but during Friday afternoon and evening the “breakdown” appeared on the websites of a dozen UK newspapers, including Scotland’s leading tabloid. It even made it as far as Germany’s Die Welt.

“Stills from the ad can be downloaded ... Would you like to feature?,” Splendid Communications went on to ask me. Not really. Instead, I was wondering if it was ethical in this era of concern about fake news to lie to the public and the press to help sell subscriptions.

Dr Alenka Jelen-Sanchez, deputy head of communications, media and culture at Stirling University, doesn’t think so. “This is incredible,” she said. “They might say this is not a big deal, just a bit of a joke, but I honestly don’t think that is good enough. It is a breach of ethical standards and it should not be tolerated.”

Jelen-Sanchez says the Starbug stunt breaches both advertising codes and the code of conduct of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

The latter speaks of honesty, integrity and accurate information. “Advertising has to be clearly labelled as such,” she adds. Exaggeration is allowed but only if the “average customer” can readily perceive it as such.

In some cases, like this one, companies and their clients can take advantage of an ambiguity about the distinction between advertising and PR. “Advertisers will say this is not advertising. PR people will say this is not PR, it is a stunt. But there is a lack of maturity in that.”

In the modern era, regulation is tighter than it once was, but that doesn’t matter if there is no enforcement, she adds. “The CIPR code of conduct is only applicable if you are a member. If someone breaches it you can complain, but if you do what happens? Not much.”

The CIPR itself disagrees. A spokesman told me their complaints procedure was "very robust".

"Where a complaint is upheld, sanctions include a reprimand, a supsension of membership or expulsion from the Institute. We take the ethical conduct of our members very seriously," he added. 

While most breaches of its code of conduct are managed informally, the CIPR publishes the names of the individuals and firms sanctioned.

Ian McAteer, chairman of Edinburgh advertising agency The Union, has worked in advertising since joining Saatchi & Saatchi 35 years ago. He argues that advertisers do face significant restrictions from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and particularly in the broadcast media.

While occasionally the pulling of an advert by the ASA can generate more coverage, in general a rap over the knuckles from the ASA is not something clients seek, he says. “These days most don’t want that. They are more sensitive about the integrity of their brand and product.”

He adds: “This example falls more under PR and promotions, or ‘stunts’ to use a technical term. PR agencies are paid to generate unpaid content and work hard to create something newsworthy, such as a survey or a big launch. But here you are making up a story.”

Somewhere along the line, someone overstepped the mark with the AA news release, McAteer says.

“It probably sounded like a genuinely funny idea when they came up with it and initially they might think ‘we conned the journalists’ but you only get that one time. If the agency or the client gets known for doing that, their name will be tarnished.

"Next time the AA has a fantastic story about coming to the rescue of a granny, say, a newspaper is going to be immediately sceptical.”

However, from Brexit to Trump to the material bombarding our email inboxes, it is increasingly a challenge for everyone to separate reality from fiction, McAteer adds: “It is getting a bit dystopian and concerning. This is very reflective of the kind of fake world we are living in now.”

Dr Lee Edwards, associate professor at the LSE’s department of media and communications, carried out a study of the response of PR agencies at the height of the fake news debate in 2016 and 2017. She found an alarming lack of self-reflection, she says.

“It was treated as a business opportunity, with PR companies seen as acting on behalf of organisations to challenge false information. But if you look at the history of PR, it is replete with examples of disinformation. There is a real unwillingness to confront the reality of what PR is. The industry has done a disappearing act.”

In fact, “organised lying” is in the DNA of PR, Edwards adds. Even though most firms behave responsibly and honestly, acting in the interests of clients sometimes requires PR professionals to fudge the boundaries between truth and reality.

This has become a problem as politics has become more like a marketplace. “The reason alternative facts and fake news are in the political sphere now is because they have been normalised already in the economic context,” she says.

Splendid Communications was behind the wildly successful launch of the Greggs vegan sausage roll and boasts a string of awards for viral marketing and digital impact. Its website claims: “For a story to appeal to media and the public it must have come from a compelling truth.”

Eventually, Charlie Gipson, a senior account director at Splendid, responded. “In retrospect, we should have made it clearer that this was in fact a staged photo opportunity and for that we apologise,” he says of the Red Dwarf stunt.

Pressed for its view, the AA press office told me the approach had been sanctioned by the firm. “This was a marketing initiative in promotion of our new advert. In hindsight it wasn’t the most appropriate approach and in future, promotions of this sort will be handled differently,” he said. “It would certainly never be our intention to mislead newsdesks and we’re sorry that their initial approach wasn’t clearer.”

This doesn’t seem the full mature honesty and accountability Jelen-Sanchez hopes to see from the industry.

“Discussing the relationship with fake news and alternative facts is less problematic than ignoring it,” she says. “I think of the quote from Tyrion Lannister in Game Of Thrones. ‘Let me give you some advice b******. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you’.”