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Hyundai have recently caused a stir after briefly releasing an advert online to show off their clean emissions, by showing a man attempting to commit suicide using exhaust fumes from his car in his garage; before releasing that his Hyundai had ‘100% water emissions’ and walking dejectedly back into his house. For most people, the reaction to this kind of advert is one of disgust. One blogger took to the internet to write an open letter to Hyundai, saying that ‘the beautifully-shot scene of taped-up car windows with [the] exhaust feeding in’ led to her shaking and crying, after her father had committed suicide the same way when she was a little girl. However, as usual in the world of the internet, some people argued that the advert was nothing more than light humour and it should not have been taken so seriously.
Mental illness and suicide is something of a touchy subject when brought into the light of the media – as some have experienced its devastating impact and others fail to relate to an illness they’ve fortunately never experienced. The advert was pulled shortly after the aforementioned blog post went viral, and Hyundai have apologised profusely, but at the end of the day, a big company thinking it was acceptable at all to make light of suicide is a problem that needs to be addressed; because let’s be honest, you would never see a company advertising their product by making light of cancer patients, or any other kind of fatal illness. Depression, which is often the cause of many suicides, is a recognised illness. Whilst we’ve all had bad days where we’ve felt depressed, depression as an illness is a real health condition with real symptoms. The NHS website goes so far as to say that ‘some people still think that depression is trivial and not a genuine health condition’, and that it is not a ‘sign or weakness’ or something that you can ‘snap out of’. Whilst symptoms may not be as visual as if you were suffering from measles or the flu, psychological studies have shown that depression is an illness caused by a deficiency in certain chemicals or distorted brain structures – not so visible on the outside but real enough to be treated with anti-depressants in more severe cases. Because of the effect depression has on the brain and a person’s emotions, sometimes suicide appears to be the only solution available. Thus, it seems somewhat macabre and inappropriate for a company to use suicide as a ‘humorous’ way of selling products.
Further to this, another blogger wrote that adverts or television shows which feature suicide storylines have an effect on viewers and can lead to copycat behaviour. The Hyundai advert was fairly graphic, in taking the time to show you the man taping up his windows, feeding the pipe into the car and sitting quietly in the dark with the engine on. Ben Goldacre, blogger, stated that an overdose storyline on popular TV show Casualty led to a 17% increase in overdoses. It’s simple logic really, by planting an idea in the heads of TV viewers who are more vulnerable and who perhaps are considering such a tragic solution, it’s bound to have an influence. In addition to this, after introducing media guidelines in Austria, there was a significant decrease in specific methods of suicide, as people were hearing about it less in the papers or on their televisions. This is why advertising agencies in particular need to think carefully about how they choose to sell their products, as not only could vulnerable adults be watching, but impressionable young children.
Fortunately for us, Hyundai are not the only company who have incredibly poor taste. People love to get irate over a controversial advert, if anger about footballers kicking cats or adorable Iron Bru farm animals being slaughtered and turned into bacon is anything to go by. We are a nation that feels strongly about what we deem to be inappropriate, e.g. a John Lewis advert received hundreds of complaints for depicting a boy hanging up his Christmas stocking up and abandoning his dog outside in the snow. Whilst clearly not on the same level as Hyundai’s latest ad, it seems this is a case of companies trying to be too controversial – as I’m sure they’ve embraced the motto that ‘all publicity is good publicity’. But, if we can’t sell Happy Meals to kids or have actors swigging a can of Coke on a soap opera, it is certainly not okay to make light of a serious condition.