Why Hyundai has committed brand suicide with its failed attempt at viral

When advertising blogger Holly Brockwell saw Hyundai’s latest online video this week she began to shake. She shook so hard she had to put her drink down before she spilt it. And then she started to cry.

Lara O'Reilly

Hyundai’s ad to promote its iX35 vehicle depicted a desperate man taping a hose pipe to the exhaust of the car to take his life, only to survive thanks to its clean emissions technology. Helen’s dad sadly left her family when she was five-years-old by committing suicide in his car, leaving a note asking her mother to kiss his two girls for him every day in his absence.

To Holly, and no doubt many others, the ad acted as the kind of psychological trigger all agencies should seek to avoid. It was gut wrenchingly insensitive, offensive and to add further insult it even basically plagiarised two naughties suicide-related ad campaigns from Citroen and Audi, which followed the same narrative with the “clean emissions” pay off at the end.

It gets worse. For a campaign that was designed to go viral and be shared on social media, Hyundai’s response to the inevitable backlash has been what could be described as laughable, if it were not such a serious topic.

Holly’s blog post was published at around midday yesterday (25 April). It took more than six hours for Hyundai to draft and tweet this ham-fisted statement: “Hyundai understands that the video has caused offence. We apologise unreservedly. The video has been taken down and will not be used in any of our advertising or marketing.”

An apology, yes, but no responsibility taken for why anybody thought the ad was appropriate to air in the first place. The blame lies with the offended viewer.

The account has also received countless tweets from horrified consumers but apparently has not thought it appropriate to reply to any of them.

Its ad agency’s response fares no better. Take a quick look at Innocean’s USA account (its worldwide account is in Korean) - the last tweet (24 April) is cringeworthy: “Feeling stressed lately? Read up on Puppy Therapy”…Hyundai and its PR teams are certainly going to need it.

Hyundai and Innocean have now released additional statements on the matter (you can read both in full below), but as far as I understand, these have just been made available to the press - not the countless number of people who were affected by the ad. I also can’t find anything on either company’s websites - if the statements are there, they’re hidden away.

The nature of a viral campaign is that it is something out of the ordinary that makes you sit up and take notice. It might be an amazing stunt, a celebrity showing their more human side or just something that’s really genuinely funny. It’s clear Hyundai’s suicide campaign didn’t tick any of these boxes and not only has the ad had the undesirable effect of causing a widespread consumer offence but it’s also highlighted in a very viral way the brand’s inability to deal with a crisis.

When a backlash of this scale erupts online, there isn’t time to go through seven layers of sign off. It’s time to leap into action, take responsibility and respond directly to those calling for your heads. A faceless press statement isn’t enough.

Not only did Hyundai and its agency badly misjudge their creative, they have also fallen down by sitting on their hands and letting a mistake run and run online, which will no doubt leave a dark stain on its brand reputation for some time to come.

Statement from Hyundai:

 “Hyundai Motor deeply and sincerely apologizes for the offensive viral film. The film 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. 

“To clarify, Hyundai Motor UK has had no involvement with the video. There are no further comments to make.”

Statement from Innocean:

“INNOCEAN Worldwide deeply and sincerely apologizes for any offense or distress that the posting of the viral film may have caused.

“This viral film was created and posted on Youtube for one day by INNOCEAN Worldwide Europe to get consumers’ feedback on creative idea employing hyperbole to dramatize a product advantage without any other commercial purpose.

“Nevertheless, as a company that espouses strong family values, INNOCEAN would never intentionally set out to cause distress. More to the point, INNOCEAN apologizes to those who have been personally impacted by tragedy.”

Readers' comments (7)

  • Perhaps one of the worst attempts at Viral ever. The subject matter was poorly thought out and clearly no one involved had experienced a loss at the hands of suicide.

    I wasn't offended, I just felt a bit deflated - bummed out and sad. I've lost family through suicide - perhaps that played a role.

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  • Interesting that you touch on seven layers of sign off when presumably the production of this appalling video needed to collect a similar number of signatures for the cameras to roll and the film to be uploaded to YouTube.

    Didn’t anyone at the agency think about the effect this would have on anyone touched by suicide?

    Yes, the responses by both Hyundai and Innocean were woefully short of what they should have been, however it should never have got to that stage.

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  • How big was the backlash? I don't get a sense of scale.

    I fear many companies now just take a social media storm as 'business as usual'. Whether it's hijacked hashtags or proper offence, the internet is outraged by everything. So when outrage is the norm, it's just some collateral damage to them.

    Thus they won't properly own up as to them it's just part of the calculated risk.

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  • Great article and spot on about the errors of both the advert & the way it was handled.

    The choice of article title is however a tad inappropriate considering the nature of the issue.

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  • Thoughtless, tasteless and one of those pretty obvious 1st ideas on the pad that should of been dismissed to the waste bin as soon as it hit the pad.

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  • Hmmm. Yes, it's awful, and yes, it's all over the internet. But, you've written: "Holly’s blog post was published at around midday yesterday (25 April). It took more than six hours for Hyundai to draft and tweet this ham-fisted statement". 6 hours? Is that a time frame to work within? For, not an ad, but a response to a tweet? No. It's not. You're a writer for "marketing week" - emphasis on 'week' - before trying to make your name about timeliness.

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  • The concept used is so crass it does make you wonder whether the old mantra of 'any publicity is good publicity' has been used. If so it unfortunately worked, people are talking about it, but that's no excuse.

    The other thought is whether there is a cultural difference about suicide in the minds of Koreans, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in S. Korea for under 40's.

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