Who in their right mind thinks suicide is funny?
Hyundai is learning the hard way that very few people, except possibly out-of-touch advertising executives trying desperately to create the next big viral video, get a belly laugh from seeing people acting out the very lowest points in life.
Ignoring a long line of failed suicide-themed car ads, Hyundai's European unit posted an online ad aimed at that market showing a man grimly sitting in his car inside his garage, with a pipe coming from the exhaust and into the car. He waits, eyes closed, for death. The camera then moves out to the street, looking in on the house and garage from the curb. The lights turn on in the garage and the man opens the garage door and heads into the house.
The punchline? "The new ix35 with 100% water emissions," Hyundai boasts. The "joke" is that he couldn't have killed himself if he'd have left the engine running for a year.
The ad hit all to close to home for Holly Brockwell, a freelance advertising creative from London, who was left shaking and crying after seeing the video. She was trembling so hard she had to put her drink down before she spilled it.
"You can push boundaries too far and break someone's heart," Brockwell told AOL Autos. Brockwell lost her father to suicide several years ago. He killed himself in the same manner depicted in Hyundai's ad when she was a child. He was holding her sister's stuffed bunny in his hands when he died. This is his suicide note:
Brockwell said she wants Hyundai and their advertising firm, Innocean, to know their ads hurt.
"And worse than that, you publicizing suicide can cause people to do the same thing as my dad, and I hope they wouldn't want that on their conscience," she said. She wrote a compelling blog post that has gone viral, and pressured the company to take down the ad.
Hyundai pulled the ad Thursday afternoon, and issued an apology:
"Hyundai understands that the video cause offense," said Ian Tonkin, a spokesman with Hyundai U.K. "We apologize unreservedly. The video has been taken down and will not be used in any of our advertising or marketing."
Hyundai Motors America had nothing to do with the ad, but still took steps to distance itself from the commercial, pointing out it never aired here and was created only in Europe. Of course, the Internet makes most ads global.
"We at Hyundai Motor America are shocked and saddened by the depiction of a suicide attempt in an inappropriate UK video featuring a Hyundai," read a statement from Hyundai America public relations. "Suicide merits thoughtful discussion, not this type of treatment."
Later in the day, Hyundai Motor Co. issued another statement, saying the ad was created by Innocean Europe without the automaker's approval. That defense, though, is hard to swallow, given Hyundai's parent company also owns Innocean.
Still, this is what they said:
"It 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," the statement said. "More to the point, Hyundai apologizes to those who have been personally impacted by tragedy."
The ad is particularly churlish given Hyundai's own history with suicide. Several workers in Asia have committed suicide in the past few years, including one temporary worker who was fired before the automaker would've been forced to hire him on full-time.
This is not the first time an automaker has tried to use suicide for comedic effect. GM in 2007 pulled an ad (which aired first on the Super Bowl) that showed a depressed quality-control robot looking for work, and then throwing itself off a bridge. The ad only aired once before it was modified and later shelved.
Innocean's ad for Hyundai isn't even original. An ad agency working with Audi in 2010 used the exact same set up for its ad: Cars with emissions too clean to let people commit suicide. Even though that ad wasn't sanctioned by Audi, it got a ton of bad press and put Audi in the crosshairs.
Hyundai already had to pull an ad in Holland that dealt with death. The commercial, for the Hyundai Veloster, showed a woman getting out of a car and being mowed down by a truck. The ad then rewinds, putting the woman in a Veloster, which only has a back door on the left side. So the woman was forced to get out of the car curbside, and avoids getting struck by the truck.
Ad standards and cultural touchstones differ greatly between the U.S. and Europe. But given that car accidents are the leading cause of death by injury in the world, automakers should be really careful about references to death in their ads. No one wants to be reminded of something that awful when they're thinking about buying a car. It's just not funny.
Sadly, not everyone agrees. British newspaper The Guardian picked Hyundai's suicide ad as one of the best commercials of the week last week, proving the point that there's no accounting for taste. The newspaper eventually pulled down its endorsement of the commercial.
Updated at 6:05 p.m. ET to include additional comments from Hyundai.