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Lessons Learned From Hyundai’s Failed Suicide Ad

Raz Godelnik
| Monday May 6th, 2013 | 0 Comments

Hyundai-ix35-Fuel-Cell_450You can divide ads for green products into four groups: positive and risk averse, fun and funny, disrupt and delight, and disturbing/irritating. While the last group has, so far, mainly included NGOs that used this tactic on purpose, we are now starting to see companies that fell into this group unintentionally. Take, for example, the latest Hyundai ad for its iX35 SUV.

Entitled “Pipe Job,” the one-minute ad for the Hyundai iX35 hydrogen-powered model shows a middle-aged man who is sitting in a car inside his garage, trying to kill himself with a hose running from the exhaust pipe into the car’s window. He fails to do so, as we learn after he opens the garage door and goes, disappointed, back home while the text on the screen reads “The new IX35, with 100%-water emissions,” followed by Hyundai logo.

I’m not sure if this ad was an homage to the failed suicide attempt of Lane Pryce last season on Mad Men (there the problem was that the Jaguar just didn’t start), but I really doubt even Don Draper would approve of this ad. And probably for good reason – many people didn’t seem to appreciate the creative decision of Hyundai’s in-house agency that produced the video to “employ hyperbole to dramatise a product advantage.” The result was lot of angry responses from people all around the world who found the ad insensitive and offensive. Hyundai subsequently pulled the ad from YouTube.

One of the responses that got most of the attention came from Holly Brockwell, a blogger and copywriter who posted an open letter about her father who committed suicide in a similar way. “I understand better than most people the need to do something newsworthy, something talkable, even something outrageous to get those all-important viewing figures. What I don’t understand is why a group of strangers have just brought me to tears in order to sell me a car,” she wrote.

Hyundai came up with an apologetic response, trying to distance itself as much as it can from the ad: “Hyundai Motors deeply and sincerely apologizes for the offensive viral film. The ad was created by an affiliate advertising agency, Innocean Europe, without Hyundai’s request or approval.” While Hyundai tries to explain how its own agency made such a mess, what does this latest advertising blunder tell the rest of us about sustainable marketing?

Matthew Yeomans brought up an interesting question on The Guardian. “Can a brand be authentic whilst also being edgy and provocative?” Or in other words, does sustainability limit the extent to which a marketing campaign of commercial products can be creative and edgy because we have higher expectations from a product that claims to be sustainable?

Well, the answer is no. Look at Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” ad, Chipotle’s anti-factory farm ad, or even Unilever’s AXE Showerpooling campaign. All of these examples embed elements of sustainable brand innovation, which was conceptualized by BBMG as “disrupt and delight.” You can find in these campaigns creativity, playfulness, and the link between disruptive innovation and consumer delight, as well as thought-provoking messages that are supposed to inspire conversations and get people to think about sustainability challenges.

Now, one might claim that as edgy as they are, these campaigns are still playing it safe, and comparing them to “Pipe Job” would be like comparing the works of Jim Carrey and Monty Python.  Yet, looking at the controversy some of these campaigns generated, it looks like they also hit a nerve or two. So what’s the difference? Well, there are two main differences that make these campaigns part of the “disrupt and delight” group, and “Pipe Job” part of the “disturbing/irritating” group.

First, let’s be clear – this is not about using or not using dark humor, but about pushing consumers out of their comfort zone. Product marketers need to remember that they can’t do it with the same degree of freedom that NGOs have in their campaigns and hence have to exercise more caution with their creative work. Ford learned this lesson couple of weeks ago with its campaign for its Figo hatchback in India depicting captive women stuffed inside the car, and now Hyundai is learning it.

Now, it doesn’t mean that there’s no wiggle room here and that marketing campaigns can’t be edgy without crossing the line – I see no reason why companies can’t come up with something similar to the great “Wasting Water is Weird” campaign. You just need the right creative spark.

Second, when companies want to take a chance and explore this territory of pushing customers out of their comfort zone, they need to remember the lessons BBMG offers about the fact that innovative  branding needs to reflect the company’s DNA and unite “purpose and performance behind a north-star vision, a noble goal, a desired solution that can transform our lives.”

In other words, it’s not just that avoiding suicide might not be the best way to get consumers excited about a new clean technology, but it’s also about the context and what the brand represents beyond the particular ad.

This is why what is considered “disrupt and delight” coming from Patagonia or Chipotle might be considered “disturbing/irritating” coming from H&M and McDonald’s respectively. Or in Don Draper’s words, “Is that what you want, or is that what people expect of you?”

[Image credit: Hyundai]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

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