Talking back

Talking back

A science blog, sans blague

Suicide Used As Plot Device in Car Ad, Public Health Norms Be Damned


Hyundai ad depicts an abortive suicide

On May 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report showing that suicide among middle-aged Americans has risen substantially. Perverse coincidence perhaps, but that document arrived about a week after Hyundai Europe pulled an ad that sparked sustained outrage because it shows a guy trying to commit suicide with fumes from his SUV, only to find his efforts stymied because his fuel-cell-powered vehicle emits only water vapor, not carbon monoxide.

The CDC statistics have nothing to do with the ad except that both furnish a reminder of the persistence of a particular public health problem that will never go away. The ad, perhaps a candidate for one of the worst advertisements of all time (that thought has crossed more than just my mind), ignores entirely the research literature suggesting that dwelling on this dark theme publicly in the wrong way can prompt others to try the same.

Samaritans, a British suicide-prevention group mentioned in a posting on the ad by prominent physician-blogger Ben Goldacre, cites over 60 studies demonstrating that media reporting on suicide can lead to copycat behavior. The phenomenon even has a name—“The Werther Effect” after Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” There is a legitimate debate as to what extent news media should withhold information about suicides to avoid repeat incidents. But Hyundai is not The Washington Post. The company pushes product and is unconcered with the public's right to know.

An obvious question lingers from all of this: what was Innocean, Hyundai’s in-house agency, thinking? True, Madison Avenue is paid handsomely to push limits. Famed executive Jerry Della Femina called his autobiography “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor,” a reference to a whimsical and immediately discarded idea he came up with for a Panasonic campaign.

So why did "The Pipe Job," as the Hyundai ad is called, ever get into circulation? Of course, lack of taste is not confined to Hyundai: PepsiCo recently dropped an ad for Mountain Dew that featured a police lineup with an injured white woman inspecting five African-American men and a goat. The particulars of the Hyundai ad are especially disturbing, though. The protagonist tapes a hose from the exhaust pipe to the interior of the vehicle and waits grim-faced behind the wheel as vapors enter.

The camera then cuts to the outside of the man's modest British home, where you see the light in the garage door window switching on before the man exits and captioning declares: “The new ix35 with 100% water emissions.” The Hyundai logo then floats mid-screen. Targeted to a British audience, the ad was posted on YouTube briefly until the uproar ensued. In response, the company issued the requisite “We apologize unreservedly.” and tried to scrub any trace of the offending material from the Web.

A simple apology here doesn’t really cut it. This ad is one for the history books. It should be embossed in the global advertising industry's institutional memory so that no one ever attempts something this stupid again.

Image Source: YouTube screen shot


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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