Business, Economics and Jobs

Hyundai could have avoided an epic PR crisis for its suicide ad


John Krafcik, President and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, speaks at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, on January 14, 2013.


Stan Honda

After releasing an ad that tries to find comedy in a man's failed suicide attempt — the "joke" being that the new car's exhaust emissions are made of water rather than carbon monoxide and, thus, aren't toxic — Hyundai has unsurprisingly found itself in the midst of a PR crisis.

After freelance copywriter Holly Brockwell's heartfelt blog about her father, who successfully killed himself by inhaling his car's exhaust fumes, went viral Thursday, both Hyundai Motor America and the company as a whole released apologies for the European-made ads.

Hyundai is in trouble with the public, but could the company have done anything to prevent it?

The most obvious answer, of course, is that the ad should never have been made and certainly never approved. Barring public service announcements, suicide has no place in advertising — especially as a joke.

(Pepsi got in trouble for ads that came out in Dusseldorf in 2008 in which a personified calorie committed suicide in various graphic ways.)

But even after the green light, Hyundai dropped the ball in a way that contributed to its current PR crisis.

On April 19, a full six days before Brockwell wrote her condemning blog post, Adweek published an article criticizing the "suicide" commercial.

While the story didn't immediately appear on other major media sites or incite mass outrage, it laid out the problems and noted, "Neither Hyundai nor ad agency Innocean responded to queries."

And there's the problem. 

Reporter David Gianatasio directly reached out for comment. And it looks like he was ignored. Perhaps the company thought the issue would go away on its own, but they were mistaken — and it resurfaced in a major way, six days later.

Of course there's a risk involved in drawing attention to an issue that might magically disappear before the mass public has become aware of the misstep. Maybe Brockwell would still have seen the video and written her passionate piece, even if the company had apologized in Adweek.

But failing to acknowledge the mistake can be worse, and make the company look more callous. 

Assuming that a problem will go away and people will stop watching the ad on their own is a fundamental misstep. Companies can't assume that the internet will just forget.

The ad was bound to gain attention, and an earlier apology might have lessened the blow.

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