How To Ruin Your Reputation In 60-Seconds-Flat, or Why Suicide Is Never A Laughing Matter In Ad-Land!

Welcome Back, Folks!

I don’t know if this story has made it outside of British and US media, but if not, then I’ll fill you in.

Car firm Hyundai are desperately trying to do some major damage-control this week. A minute-long viral advert, made by Innocean Europe – an advertising creation company – for Hyundai’s latest car – features a man attempting to commit suicide. The ad shows the man connecting a long hosepipe to the car’s exhaust, then feeding the pipe into the car’s driver-side window, before he then gets into the car, seals up the windows and turns on the ignition… and waits for the inevitable. If you want to see the ad, you can easily Google it. I won’t link to it, purely because so many sites are removing it, and thus any links to the video go dead very quickly. However, anyone who wants to see it, will be able to find it easily enough. Just be aware, that it really isn’t very nice!

Unfortunately (or fortunately), the “joke” of the ad, is that the emissions from the car’s exhaust are 100% water, and thus contain no carcinogens. Hence, the man realises that he can’t kill himself with this particular model of Hyundai. The ad shows the man living, but the ad’s creation has caused a large and understandable furore around most parts of the globe.

It first came to attention, when a lady by the name of Holly Brockwell wrote a moving and powerful open-letter on her Blog which you can read  here.  In it, Ms Brockwell movingly explains that her father committed suicide in the same manner as that featured in the ad. When she saw the ad, she was understandably shocked and upset that anyone could even consider using the contentious subject of suicide, as a sensible, humorous, and innovative way to sell a product to the world-at-large. To really rub salt into the wound, Ms Brockwell works as an ad executive, though not for Innocean I should point out, so knows full well how advertising executives “create” new ideas to market products, and what subjects would be verboten in ad-land.

Thankfully, since her open letter went viral (much like the ad itself), Innocean and Hyundai have had to pull the ad, and try and do some serious damage-limitation. Hyundai claim they knew nothing of the ad, never authorised it, and were only aware of it, once Holly’s blog article started doing the rounds across the Western world’s media.

If you look through some of the 400-odd comments at the end of Ms Brockwell’s blog, most are sympathetic and tolerant of her complaint. However, a fair few are not. Some have complained that Ms Brockwell is making a mountain out of a molehill, and fussing over nothing. Some have even been extremely unpleasant, labelling her as “mad”, “stupid”, and “ignorant” because she has dared pen her open letter in the first place. Others don’t understand the fuss at all, and think Ms Brockwell should simply “get over it”.

I don’t think Ms Brockwell has done anything wrong. In fact, I think what she has done, is actually very moving. No one wants to ban something that is in poor-taste, but there’s a time and a place. I have no problems with some poor taste films – such as John Waters’ classic comedy PINK FLAMINGOS (1971). It’s a hilarious and sick and twisted comedy, about a couple trying to be “The most disgusting couple in all America”.

The difference with that film, though, is that it’s my decision to watch it, and having read about it, I know what to expect. It was my decision to watch it, and I had full control over whether I watched it in full, or in part. I know about its extreme content, and thus I can’t then complain if I get offended by some of the sick material that Waters’ has chosen to include.

Advertising is not something most of us have any control over. Whether it be in magazines and newspapers, on TV, or on the Internet, ads spring up without any kind of warning. Sometimes those ads may be ads you would – if you had the option – material that you would actively reject viewing/reading. How many times have you received spam or targetted ads, promoting sex aids, “available” women, or legal highs? But in an age when ad makers are resorting to ever more shocking tactics to get your attention, and often your money too, sometimes ad makers go too far.

I think it would be fair of me to say, that most people would not object to some adverts using “shock tactics” to get your attention. Charities often use shocking or distressing images, to solicite donations. The Red Cross, Comic Relief (here in the UK), Unicef, and WaterAid have all shown ads featuring the poor and impoverished citizens in places like Namibia, Gambia and Ethiopia. Other charities like those dealing with Cancer or The Samaritans, may also sometimes uses uncomfortable material, to get their message heard. The ads aren’t always easy to stomach, but there is a justifiable reason for such material being broadcast. Sometimes, we as human beings, need to be shocked into action. (There’s an ad currently doing the rounds in the UK right now, with the tagline “Up Yours Cancer”! In the UK, “up yours” is a slang term using the two-fingered “v” sign, meaning “fuck you” or “fuck off”!)

But as I’ve said, there’s a time and there’s a place.

Using the fairly explicit and distressing images of a man trying to commit suicide, by exhaust fumes in an enclosed space, is not the time nor place. It’s crass and morally repugnant. How anyone in their right mind could think that using such imagery, let alone the actual concept, simply to get people to buy a car, is beyond me.

I’ve talked before about whether films can ever go too far. At least with films, you make the distinct and detailed choice to watch them, and they often come with certificates that explain their content and suitability for us. Adverts, however, do not. They just appear, and we either ignore them, or look at them to see what they are about.

In this instance, though, the advert has completely backfired on Hyundai and Innocean. It should be stressed, that at no point does Ms Brockwell ever ask for the ad to be banned. She doesn’t. She simply asks how any ad executive could think that featuring suicide and suicidal methods to try and sell automobiles can be considered good or clever. And as I sit here writing this article, I too am wondering how anyone thought that this idea was both clever and actually worth greenlighting? Someone had to say “Yes, let’s do this“! And others had to get the money together, actually hire the camera crew, cast a man as the victim, and then go and film the damn thing. Ads don’t generally get made in a few days, by a couple of people. They’re often made by teams, after weeks or months of pitching ideas around. Ads are often conceived months before they ever get to air.

Yet, at no point in time, did Innocean think “Um, guys, hang on a minute. Do we really think the public will be okay with this ad?“. In fact, it seems that no thought was put into this ad’s execution at all.

What makes this worse, is since the ad was pulled, Innocean have released a rather inept Public Relations statement, which you can read  here. Although they apologise, I don’t think they realise just how utterly stupid their decision to release this ad has been. It’s one think to do something that reflects badly on your own company, but they made this ad for Hyundai. Prior to this, Hyundai were just another car manufacturer. Now, they’re going to be forever known as that car company: the one that did the ad featuring a guy trying to kill himself! Unfortunately, although the ad has been pulled, it’s online forever, and it will be impossible for this ad to ever be permanently erased. As anyone knows, anything you post online, is going to remain there long past the day you die. Items online never expire. They almost transcend time.

I feel a little sorry for Hyundai, but certain questions need to be asked here:
1) Who asked for the ad to be made?
2) Who came up with the idea, and approved it?
3) At what point in the ad’s creation and execution, were Hyundai notified of the ad’s content?
4a) If Hyundai were notified, did anyone from their organisation do anything to stop it?
4b) If Hyundai weren’t notified, why weren’t they notified?
5) Once the ad was completed, were Hyundai told about the theme and content? Again, if so, who at Hyundai approved it, and if not, why were Hyundai not informed?
6) If Hyundai had no knowledge of the ad until its eventual release on Thursday, why weren’t they told?

Lastly, now that the ad has been pulled, what are Hyundai and Innocean going to do to rectify the damage they’ve now caused? Because, in my view, damage has been caused. Not only to Hyundai’s perception by the public, but to advertising executives too. Damage has also been caused, albeit not intentionally, to Holly Brockwell. I’m not suggesting that she needs to be given damages, but maybe Hyundai or Innocean could maybe make a significant donation to Mental Health or Suicide Prevention charities, as recompense, in Ms Brockwell’s name or in honour of the death of her father? At least, that might help the damage-limitation process, in the eyes of the world’s public and media. Otherwise, right now, no one’s going to enter a Hyundai dealership for the forseeable future, because of one 60-second screw-up that should never have been made, let alone released for viewing!

Holly herself says:

My dad never drove a Hyundai. Thanks to you, neither will I.

I think that says it all.

This is a catastrophic mistake in advertising, not too far from the likes of Tobacco giants convincing us that smoking was both healthy and cool; American Apparel trying to make sales in local stores, just days after the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, or McDonalds launching their new McAfrika burger in branches of the Golden Arches restaurants in Norway, during a point in African history, when an actual famine had left more than 10 million Africans dying of starvation.

There’s a time and place for everything. I just wish that Innocean staff had truly considered what they were doing properly, not just aiming to outdo every other advert-maker in the cleverness stakes.Sometimes being daring, provocative, controversial or dangerous is the worst thing you can do. Srđan Spasojević, director of the infamous SRPSKI FILM / A SERBIAN FILM (2010) knows that all too well! And that’s a film I’ve talked about a lot on my blog.

Take care out there!

ADDENDUM: Since I wrote this article, according to AdWeek, Hyundai were warned about the ad and that it may be seen as being “tasteless”. No one from Hyundai nor Innocean responded to requests for responses to the article. Clearly, there’s more to this story to come. Read the AdWeek article – here.

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How To Ruin Your Reputation In 60-Seconds-Flat, or Why Suicide Is Never A Laughing Matter In Ad-Land!

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