One Bad Ad: Hyundai’s unfortunate blunder

Every once in a while an ad catches my attention, either because it’s unusually clever – or unusually bad. Like the ad released last April in the UK by Hyundai Motors. To me, the story is doubly tragic. I’m saddened by the insensitive depiction of human tragedy for no other purpose than to promote a product. And I’m disheartened that the world’s first mass-produced, zero-emissions, hydrogen fuel cell vehicle’s marketplace debut had to be marred with such negative psychology.

hyundai-ix35-1
The Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell is the world’s first mass-produced hydrogen powered vehicle. Will it survive the negative press generated by its debut UK television ad?

I don’t always keep abreast of image advertising, since I’m more involved in the content marketing and direct response arenas. But every once in a while an ad catches my attention, either because it’s unusually clever – or unusually bad.

Sometimes, bad ads can be (painfully) fun to view. Sort of like watching an old Godzilla movie.

But others are just plain tasteless. Like the ad released last April in the UK by Hyundai Motors, depicting a man attempting to commit suicide by piping his exhaust fumes back into the passenger compartment of his car. At the end, he is unsuccessful because – ha, ha! he owns a Hyundai zero-emissions vehicle.

(I decided not to include the video in this post because I don’t want anything that crass on my blog, but if you really must see for yourself, you can do so here.)

Was Hyundai expecting their “clever ad” to go viral and result in blockbuster sales of zero-emissions cars to people wanting to protect their loved ones from suicide?

Or maybe the brand simply had a death wish. Because the ad did go viral, thanks in large part to Holly Brockwell. The U.K. copywriter wrote a tearful and outraged blog post raking Hyundai and its advertising agency, Innocean, over the coals for making her relive her father’s suicide using the same method depicted in the ad.

“I understand better than most people the need to do something newsworthy, something talkable, even something outrageous to get those all-important viewing figures,” Holly wrote. “What I don’t understand is why a group of strangers have just brought me to tears in order to sell me a car. Why I had to be reminded of the awful moment I knew I’d never see my dad again, and the moments since that he hasn’t been there.”

Why, indeed?

To me, the story is doubly tragic. I’m saddened by the insensitive depiction of human tragedy for no other purpose than to promote a product. And I’m disheartened that the world’s first mass-produced, zero-emissions, hydrogen fuel cell vehicle’s marketplace debut had to be marred with such negative psychology.

I’ve said it before, and this incident brings it home: harping on the negative does nothing to promote green products. People want to feel good about what they buy. Who can feel good about a car that conjures up images of attempted suicide?

There’s one more thing that has me scratching my head – Hyundai’s statement after pulling the ad:

The ad was created by an affiliate advertising agency, Innocean Europe, without Hyundai’s request or approval. It runs counter to our values as a company and as members of the community. We are very sorry for any offense or distress the video caused.

What? The ad was created and aired without Hyundai’s request or approval? Huh? I find it awfully hard to believe that Innocean could or would create and run a major television ad without at least a nod from its client. And if so, then shame on Hyundai.

Hyundai slipped up bad by allowing an ad agency that obviously doesn’t have a clue about green marketing psychology (nor, apparently, human decency) to represent their brand. And they slipped up again by neglecting to protect their own reputation and values, and then attempting to shift the blame.

I don’t mean to come down too hard on Hyundai. The company has an exemplary diversity policy, has donated millions to charitable causes, and is a pioneer in eco-aware vehicle manufacturing. I just want to point out that in green marketing, (and increasingly in all marketing), it’s so important to talk your walk as well as walk your talk.

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