Hyundai, the world’s fifth largest automaker, was poised for a sustainable marketing home run with its ground-breaking hydrogen fuel cell crossover, the ix35. So the ad agency Innocean, part of the Hyundai Group, stepped up to the plate.
If you keep up with the ad or auto worlds, you’ve likely already seen or at least read about this dead-on-arrival attempt at levity. A realistic scene is depicted where a defeated-looking gentleman pipes exhaust fumes into the cabin of his SUV. In what was meant to be an amusing twist, the depressed man’s attempt fails because the ix35 doesn’t actually create toxic fumes, and he glumly walks back into his dreary home.
Commentators were quick to open up their bag of horrified adjectives, and their reactions were nearly as unoriginal as the spot itself. Yes, I said as unoriginal as the spot itself. Suicide-themed spec ads featuring Citroen and Audi were produced in ’03 and ’10 with nearly identical plots. Don’t you remember the outrage they generated? No? Neither do I.
So, what gives? Why was this one the object of such self-righteous furor while its predecessors received only moderate scorn? There are undoubtedly multiple factors at play here, but to me there was one very specific element: Holly Brockwell.
Brockwell, a blogger and part of the U.K. ad community, penned a post that opened with this:
“Dear Hyundai and your advertising agency, Innocean,
This is my dad.”
What followed was a faded photo, a heartbreaking story and a scan of a water-stained, handwritten farewell from a father whose life ended in a similar scenario to the one depicted in the ad. Brockwell goes on to share the pain she felt while watching the spot and the fact that her perception of Hyundai is permanently altered. Her closing statement was, “My dad never drove a Hyundai. Thanks to you, neither will I.”
Well, I won’t go that far, but I will say that as the tragedy of her story sunk in, years of disciplined messaging from Hyundai’s U.S. campaign faded into the background. Innocean’s little viral spot successfully jumped the Atlantic, creating discord with Jeff Bridges’ comforting tones.
Ultimately, an ad about hydrogen cars became an ad about suicide. Innocean hijacked its own message, and what should have been an optimistic statement turned into a painful conversation about one of society’s harshest realities.
Hyundai has since apologized and pulled the ad, and I doubt there will be any serious long-term consequences. But there are certainly a number of things we can take from this:
When presented with an opportunity for optimism, run with it. Have fun, be light and be positive. Successful green marketing is about hope, not despair. Quality advertising does require taking risks, but this was not a risk. It was a missed opportunity.
Your brand is global. The idea of insular campaigns separated by borders and oceans is antiquated. If your media is worth talking about, they will be talking about it everywhere. Granted, the left hand can’t always know what the right hand is doing, but they should be wired to the same brain.
Don’t forget the world is full of Hollys. People with real experiences and real voices will engage your messaging. Anticipate those encounters and connect by creating positive conversations that convey human truths and illustrate a sense of empathy.