Did Hyundai actually benefit from suicide ad criticism?

Gordon Young, editor of The Drum, offers his insight and opinion on various matters relating to media and marketing.

‘A mum’s disapproval has always been an accurate barometer for what is cool’, proclaimed a promo for the computer game Dead Space 2. It’s a good line which in my view also gives an insight into why some major brands have recently found themselves at the centre of social media – and then mainstream media – storms.

Hyundai's controversial 'suicide' advert

Recent examples include Hyundai which ran an online commercial which, in order to demonstrate the low emissions of a new car, featured a failed suicide attempt. In the US meanwhile Mountain Dew launched what was dubbed by one as “the most racist commercial ever”. The online spot was made by rapper Tyler the Creator and featured a goat, a white assault victim and an all black police line-up. (Incidentally it was the goat that did it.) An earlier online spot, this time for Volkswagen, sees a suicide bomber detonate his vest only for the blast to be contained inside the car. The line? “Polo. Small but tough.”

The ads all followed a similar trajectory. First, an apparent social media backlash, followed by claims from the companies that they were not directly responsible for the work. ‘Plausible deniability’ is the term that springs to mind. They were all then withdrawn from official sites (although all can still be found online) and the company said sorry.

But one can’t help feeling there may be more upside than downside to this approach. For example, once the companies respond to the social media mob, the criticism rapidly dissipates. And there is no doubt Hyundai’s zero emission message or Volkswagen’s small but tough proposition did stick. Will Mountain Dew really worry about its new edgy bad boy profile?

In the Dead Space 2 promo, the game invited mums to review the new product. They then recorded their horror about how such a game could have ever been made, which is bound to have made it more appealing to teenage boys. It only proves that criticism can actually boost brands – depending, of course, on who is criticising.

Now on one hand employing either suicide or suicide bombing to sell cars will always be difficult to defend. But on the other, as the legendary ad man George Lois once wrote, “Safe conventional work is a ticket to oblivion. Great creativity should stun, as modern art was supposed to shock, by presenting the viewer with an idea that seemingly suspends conventions of understanding. In that swift interval between the shock and the realisation that what you are presenting is not as outrageous as it seems, you capture your audience.”

Want to see an example of such work? Check out the nominations for the Chip Shop Awards 2013.

This article first appeared as the Leader column in the 10 May edition of The Drum magazine

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