Empathy and advertising.

By now I’m sure a lot of you will be aware of Hyundai’s ad promoting one of their low-emission vehicles. There’s this poor soul who, distressed with how life has dealt him a bad hand or something (I’m fuzzy on the details) decides to end it all by committing suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage. Foiled by the environmentally friendly nature of his Hyundai, he goes off to continue his life. I’m guessing that Innocean (Hyundai’s agency) and the client felt that this would be an edgy promotion, perhaps going viral, culminating with an uptick in profits for the quarter. Maybe they even thought that the message of an environmentally friendly vehicle helping to save a person’s life would be a great message.

This is one of the most asinine things I’ve ever heard of.

The first rule of advertising is that an ad is there to help sell a client’s product or service to its intended target audience. Assuming that the intended target audience is human, this ad missed the mark completely. A good agency is able to put themselves in the shoes of the prospective consumer and sell in a compelling and sympathetic manner. Certainly it can be argued that the ad drives home (unintended pun) the point that it is a low-emissions vehicle, but there is nothing funny at all about depression or suicide and all this ad does is make Hyundai look like a bunch of heartless, money grubbing, insensitive bastards (tell us how you really feel, Jason) who wouldn’t know what a human being would think or feel if they ever met one. The apologies issued by both Hyundai and Innocean are quite hollow at this point. That ad should have never made it out of the agency’s creative department, let alone into the wild where actual human beings with feelings would consume it.

A couple of years ago, Nissan ran an ad with Lance Armstrong (yes, that Lance Armstrong) riding on his bike behind one tailpipe or another while training. The ad culminated in him riding behind a Nissan Leaf – an electric vehicle with no tailpipe at all. We could almost feel the fresh air invigorating our beleaguered lungs. All of us have walked behind a bus or a car with an emissions problem and inhaled a noxious, choking cloud of carbon monoxide. It is unpleasant. This ad reminded us of that and made us sympathize with the narrator – feeling great relief that the time is coming where we don’t ever have to deal with that again. It appealed to our common experience. This was a good ad. It was positive and made us think kindly toward Nissan and their forward thinking, sympathetic motives. Whether or not that was their motivation is irrelevant, it was the message of the advertisement and it is one that appeals to the target audience on an emotional level.

On a personal/professional note:  there is a common feeling out there that advertising agencies are only out there for the money and we prey on poor consumers by convincing them to buy things they don’t really need and might not be able to afford. Innocean seems to be out there to prove this to be true, and it doesn’t help the rest of us who (while making money for ourselves is, of course, why we have turned our talents to a field where they can feed our families) feel like what we do serves the purpose of helping others build and maintain their businesses – in the end adding to the well-being of their companies, employees, and the economy as a whole. The best and most creative of us can use our common experience and emotional intelligence as tools to accomplish this goal. Those who do not make the rest of us look like ogres.

And for that I’d like to say stop. Please, just stop. We are all human and it is in our best interests, both as people and as advertisers, to remember that.

6 thoughts on “Empathy and advertising.

  1. Howard Neil Katz

    I agree it miss it mark, but I do see what they were going for here a kind of dark humor that many would find refreshing. In all the “a new car will change your life” advertising out there, it nice when someone challenges the statist quo on it. It was not a successful ad, but I for one give both the Hyundai and Innocean credit on trying something out of the box to bring attention to their product.

    Reply
  2. jasonpolk Post author

    There are better ways. Dark humor can be fun, but it doesn’t work here. Especially with the massive audience an auto manufacturer is attempting to reach. There are plenty of ways to sell a car that don’t claim to change your life – many do – look at the Volkswagen/Vader ad of last year. There might be a small audience that it would appeal to, but considering the damage an ad like this does to a company’s reputation, that audience is far too small to justify it. And all it does is make everyone look bad, from Hyundai, to Innocean, to advertising as a whole. So while there is something to be said for risky, edgy concepts (I agree with you entirely about that), this is a poor example of it.

    Reply
    1. Howard Neil Katz

      I did not say it worked. But I think both of us saw where they were trying to go. It should also be said that it is very hard to make a car commercial memorable. Other then the star wars commercial you cited I can only think of one car commercial that I remember (also VW by the way). a speed racer commercial that was probably so narrow focused that me and three other guys were the targets of the commercial.

      that it with $1 billion dollar spent this year*, two commercial from years back are the only one in my mind for auto advertising. It is very hard to find the right hook. I did not like the Hyundai commercial and if you had not talked about it it would already be out of my head. It failed, dose not mean the attempt was wrong that is all I was trying to say.

      * business insider

      Reply
  3. jasonpolk Post author

    Oh absolutely. I agree with you that they were trying something different, and that can be a laudable thing. So many auto ads fall back on the same old sales pitches (that said, they DO work) that it can get a bit boring. And I do get that you are not defending the ad. I also understand that by talking about it I am promoting their brand. I’ve nothing against Hyundai as a car manufacturer, I think I may have an issue with their marketing department and the account manager at the agency, however.

    Reply

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