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Getting edgy with ads – and paying the price

The agency that created the online video is partly owned by Hyundai.


When a major character on Mad Men attempted suicide in a Jaguar last season, the people charged with protecting the car brand's image struggled to respond in a way that would mitigate the damage. But now another auto maker has been roundly criticized for using a similar scenario as a sales tactic.

This past week, Hyundai Motor Co. publicly apologized after an ad was posted online showing a man inside the new ix35 with the windows taped up and a hose feeding fumes from the exhaust pipe into the car. The U.K.-made ad, which was pulled from YouTube by the company, ends with the man walking away from the car – a tribute to the vehicle's low carbon monoxide emissions.

The response online was swift, and negative. A London-based advertising copywriter, Holly Brockwell, wrote an open letter to Hyundai and its ad agency Innocean Worldwide saying that her father killed himself in their family car. Ms. Brockwell wrote about shaking uncontrollably and crying while she watched the ad.

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Why the video was produced and distributed remains unclear – both the company and the ad agency said in statements that Innocean had acted without Hyundai's approval.

But it also highlights the tricky demand on agencies to create attention-getting, edgy ads, the kind of work that skirts the line but does not cross it. Refraining from using suicide to sell cars would seem obvious. But there are many more subtle judgment calls agencies must make every day. "It has never been harder for a brand to get noticed. But it has also never been easier for brands to be held accountable for their associations," said Darren Clarke, executive creative director at Taxi Canada Inc. "The execution can't be pushed so far that it takes the brand somewhere that it shouldn't be going ... but it has to be interesting to the intended audience. Otherwise it's a waste of everyone's time. ... We deal with this tension all the time."

Agencies have to rely on their judgment, and understanding the character of the brands they are working for, he added.

Usually, another mitigating factor is a stringent client-approval process. Most agencies are not even permitted to post something on Facebook without first having an agreement as to the type of content they will produce on a company's behalf. When it comes to something as costly to produce and high-profile as a TV ad or online video, the levels of approval only grow.

Hyundai's example is the second time in recent memory that a car company has found itself called out for unapproved ads that were in bad taste. Last month, Ford Motor Co. had to apologize after its agency JWT in India published a series of ads to an industry website. One of the ads showed a cartoon drawing of a smiling Silvio Berlusconi sitting in a Ford Figo, with three bound and gagged women with bounteous cleavage stuffed in the trunk.

In the wake of the scandal, the agency's chief creative officer was asked to resign, and an undisclosed number of other employees were also fired. Hyundai did not respond to questions about whether anyone at Innocean had been fired or disciplined this week. (The agency is partly owned by Hyundai.)

Sometimes, a bit of edge can work for a brand. In the case of Fortnight Lingerie, a small Canadian brand, its online video "Super Sexy CPR" helped it to stand out on a tiny budget. The agency, Red Urban, dressed models in lingerie and had them demonstrate life-saving techniques on each other. Red Urban got complaints, but the campaign was a success from the client's perspective.

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"There are audiences where it's more of a niche play, where it is a smaller audience – like young men with Axe, or Old Spice – where you can be a bit more incorrect," said Christina Yu, creative director at Red Urban in Toronto. "There's a certain amount of forgiveness when you like something. ... But I don't think you need to be shocking to get noticed. That's a bad way to go about it."

In Hyundai's case, the shock value was clearly negative. "It runs counter to our values as a company and as members of the community," a statement from Hyundai's global headquarters said. "We are very sorry for any offence or distress the video caused. More to the point, Hyundai apologizes to those who have been personally impacted by tragedy."

In an e-mail on Friday, Innocean also apologized and said it had made "every effort" to pull the video from the Web. "The film was designed to creatively dramatize the technical strength of the vehicle featured. Clearly we misjudged consumer sentiment," wrote Peter Kwan, senior manager of the global corporate planning team at Innocean Worldwide in South Korea.

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