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Marketing and Comms
Hyundai's Controversial Ad:
Communicating Sustainability the Wrong Way?

Suicide may be painless in the song but it's a theme that's causing all sorts of grief for automaker Hyundai.

Suicide may be painless in the song but it's a theme that's causing all sorts of grief for automaker Hyundai.

At issue is a new viral video posted on YouTube (that has since been removed) for its ix35 Crossover vehicle and created by in-house agency, Innocean. The video advert depicts a man trying to kill himself through asphyxiation from his ix35's tailpipe exhaust. He fails because the car is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and so emits only water.

The ad had only been online a few hours before it was kicking up a storm of condemnation assisted by an open letter from an outraged blogger whose own father had committed suicide in the manner depicted by the ad. Hyundai quickly apologised and tried to distance itself from the "creative" work but, such is the half-life of the Internet — once you put it out there, it stays there.

Anyone who has ever worked in a creative agency knows how this story goes. First the client says they want something really "edgy" and so the agency's creative team comes up with a completely whacked-out idea that amuses them and their colleagues no end, safe in the knowledge that the client will never sign off on it. Except in this case Hyundai did, drawing, it must be said, on a track record of dubious taste decisions when it comes to their ads.

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Hyundai's "pipe job" isn't the first advert to invoke suicide. Portuguese conservation group Quercus, did it in 2008 in a video that showed animated animals killing themselves rather than face the destruction of their habitats.

Environmental groups have long used shock advertising to try and wake up the world to the dangers of climate change and other issues. One of the most successful (and funny) green agitprop videos of recent years was the Coen Brothers' parody of the U.S. coal lobby's claims that their product could produce clean energy.

In 2010, created this shock spot featuring pregnant mothers and babies smoking cigarettes to campaign against one U.S. senator's attempt to block the EPA from regulating GHGs under the Clean Air Act. The same year, WWF released its own "edgy" video titled, "It all comes back to you," that tied littering with being run over by a truck.

The difference, of course, is that these NGOs were using shock tactics to raise public awareness for a sustainability cause. Hyundai, on the other hand, was trying to sell cars, albeit more sustainable ones than most of their SUV competitors.

Many in the advertising industry would dismiss the furor over Hyundai's YouTube faux pas as collateral damage in the pursuit of a viral hit. It wouldn't be the first time that a brand had floated a risky advert on its agency's YouTube channel safe in the knowledge that it could deny all knowledge of the work if it goes viral in the wrong way. Indeed the "pipe job" seems to be yet another case of a "plain dumb marketing" social media screw-up, propelled by an agency and perhaps also a brand that underestimated just how quickly vocal, opinionated social media criticism can damage a company's reputation.

At the same time, the incident poses a bigger question about what constitutes sustainable marketing — can a brand be authentic whilst also being edgy and provocative? All too often brands equate sustainability with being worthy and earnest. They assume sustainability is not a fun concept that will connect with customers so marketers end up overplaying green or social cause imagery, creating associations that try the patience of most educated consumers (Mazda's association with The Lorax being a great example). Or they make tangential creative leaps that land them in hot water, as Hyundai just discovered. In this case could it be possible that the agency thought it could push the limits of edginess because marketing a green and sustainable product gave it more creative "wiggle room"?

Ultimately, sustainability needs better, more creative storytelling if it is going to be a philosophy that captures the hearts and minds of companies and customers alike. Work such as the Rainforest Alliance's "Follow the Frog" show that sustainability adverts can be funny and insightful when the storytellers understand the values they are trying to communicate. But until more marketers feel comfortable talking about sustainability, they'll keep creating noxious adverts like "pipe job."

This post first appeared in The Guardian on May 2, 2013.