In a media marketplace where people are hit with brand messages from all conceivable directions and devices, advertisers, we are told, need to be bold to cut through. Consider also that we occupy a cultural era in which the WTF-threshold is sky high—the weird, the creepy, the alarming are commonplace (think Skittles’s groundbreaking, bizarre ads, but also think of the tone of our entertainment content). With the combination of those media facts of life, it’s isn’t hard to see how, in the wrong hands, a quest for a viral edge can go wrong.
Hyundai recently demonstrated just how wrong, earning opprobrium for a U.K. ad that depicted a man attempting suicide via auto-assisted CO inhalation. The spot shows the man assembling the necessary elements in his garage but emerging, foiled, hours later thanks to—Ha!—the Hyundai ix35’s water-only emissions (somehow this feature of the car wasn’t taken into account when he started the procedure . . . but we’ll leave that lacuna in logic there for now). The ad isn’t played for laughs (you know, the kind of laughs that one can sometimes derive from a situation like this); until the payoff line, it’s straight, dark drama, such that one might think one is watching a PSA for suicide prevention, or a short film.
Many ad watchers might have assumed "Pipe Job" was an expensive and well-executed spec spot—after all, what client in his or her right mind would sign off on and spend marketing dollars on such a dumb and pointlessly offensive ad? But it wasn’t a spec. After a period of silence (and no response when we reached out to the company’s agency Innocean, which is credited online for the ad), Hyundai publicly apologized for the ad. The apology came after a woman identifying herself as U.K. ad creative Holly Brockwell authored a harrowing blog post that recounted her father’s suicide (the post included the note he left) and the pain and revulsion triggered by the ad (we contacted Brockwell’s agency, AdamandEve London and one of the firm’s principals did confirm that the author of the blog post was working there as a freelancer and that he’d been told "that her blog reflects what happened to her family").
So what WERE they thinking? In this case, it seems to be a function of small but important differences in national ad sensibilities. This is the marketer, after all, whose European agencies have, on past occasions, made a spot showing a woman getting mowed down by a car and an insanely degrading spot focused on a series of upskirt and erect nipple shots. The "Pipe Job" spot was also showcased without much ado in U.K media outlets—it was Ad of the Day in marketing trade magazine The Drum. The Guardian had also featured the ad but has since removed the post from its website. It should also be noted that the same suicide device had been used in Euro car ads before, more than once (see slide show). It’s not some large-scale insensitivity to the issue of suicide; it’s that standards, on ads and entertainment, are different in different places. The same thing that makes Euro ads shockingly brilliant when they’re good can result in a mishaps of significant magnitude. These are ads that simply would not get made for a major brand like this in the U.S., even for non-TV distribution (just as no U.S. marketer of soda would make ads that look like this French campaign featuring sexed-up animals). No marketer would take the risk.
Often with these troublesome ads, the marketer never did sign off (officially at least). What’s interesting is that with the wording of its apology, Hyundai has copped to making the ads. In many other cases like this one, marketers have disowned the offending ad, shifting the responsibility onto their agencies.
There are different breeds of these orphan ads—ads that manage to get made, sometimes with actual client budgets, but that are abandoned afterward. These ads no one wants are conceived out of the aforementioned pressure to break through, sure. But sheer desire to move the needle for a client isn’t the only thing driving the creation of these ads— lust for award show wins has traditionally been a key motivator. So-called scam ads are a familiar presence on the award show circuit—typically provocative ads that may or may not have been made to do any actual good for a brand (like selling things, let’s say) but that agencies, and sometimes clients, engineer to win coveted awards. Now, though, the drive for viral success is probably as big a motivator as awards once were.
There’s the ad that was created on spec by an ambitious creative person or agency, completely unsanctioned by a brand. Or the ad that was created with a client on board but that appeared or was aired once, in a token media buy just to satisfy the letter of award entry rules.
There’s often some unseemly grey area in terms of who knew what and when in the case of these ads. The "rogue" orphan ad is embodied by a recent campaign for the Ford Figo out of JWT India. The key ad in the series of illustrated posters shows former Italian PM Berlusconi in the front seat of the car giving a victory sign, while in the foreground we see a trio of scantily clad young women (one of them in tears) bound and gagged in the vehicle’s spacious trunk.
When the ads came to light, after having been posted to ad archive Ads of the World (and during a period in which India was in the media as a result of the horrific December gang rape of a young woman), the inevitable uproar ensued and Ford disowned the campaign. The ads, said the agency, "were never intended for paid publication, were never requested by our Ford client, and should never have been created, let alone uploaded to the Internet." Agency staffers involved were fired.
However, the ads were submitted into an Indian award show, which, like all award shows, requires that a client sign off on the fact that the ads are real and actually ran (as Creativity reported, the agency fudged, saying that though the marketer signed off, he may or may not have actually seen the actual ads. To which, great job marketer).
J.C. Penney was at the center of a scam controversy in 2008 when a spot created on its behalf, "Speed Dressing," won a Bronze Lion at the Cannes ad festival. The inoffensive spot features two teens practicing getting dressed and undressed while timing themselves—the actions are later revealed to be training for a rendezvous in the girl’s basement while her mom is upstairs (the spot concludes with the end line: "Today’s the day to get away with it"). Worrying that it appeared to be down with teen sex and getting away with things, the retailer disowned the spot, claiming to have had nothing to do with it. That statement was followed by some farcical finger pointing (with the agency claiming that the production company was responsible for the ad being submitted).
In other more brazen cases, agencies have submitted ads for clients they don’t even have (like this award-winning campaign for Luxor highlighters).
There are still other, softer scams. It’s not unheard of for major marketers to create "Cannes funds" to make ads expressly to enter, and win, award shows, burnishing creative reps all around without going through the rigor of actually doing great creative work on the regular.
The Hyundai "Pipe Job" ad doesn’t seem much like an award scam ad, in that one can’t really imagine it winning awards in this day and age. It seemed more like a case of an agency and marketer trying to be edgy in pursuit of a viral hit. Like many of these things, in the end it ends up being offensive by virtue of just not being very good advertising.
So what do we learn? By no means that marketers should stop pushing to make interesting, even challenging ads. But perhaps that ad makers should always remember: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
If nothing else this should remind marketers to give their agencies—agencies that manage to do provocative work that isn’t horribly offensive and that actually benefits a brand—a pat on the back (or, you know, more money).
See some recent and classic ad orphans in the slide show above