Suicide requires sensitive handling

The car manufacturer Hyundai and their advertising company,  Innocean Europe, have made a gross error of judgment in producing an online video commercial featuring a man seeking to take his own life in a Hyundai car.  In an effort to illustrate the car’s environmental credentials of zero emissions, the middle-aged man is shown connecting a hose to the car exhaust. His efforts are prevented as the car emits only water vapour.

The advert has thankfully now been pulled, following the very personal plea of Londoner Holly Brockwell who wrote a devastatingly powerful letter about the profound impact the advert had on her given her father’s suicide using the same method when she was five years old.

Understanding the impact that a commercial can have on its viewers, both desired and inadvertent, must surely be a critical element of the creative process? Advertising companies know, and capitalise on the power they hold. But given this, they need to also exercise the responsibility that comes with it.

Suicide is a valid subject for discussion, and in fact, it is essential that conversations about suicide take place publicly, in order to tackle the surrounding stigma and enable people experiencing suicidal thoughts to feel able to come forward and seek help.

Yet it must be done with caution, as rigorous and extensive research has demonstrated an indisputable link that the inappropriate portrayal of suicide can lead to imitative behaviour. This includes providing details of the mechanisms and procedures used to carry out a suicide given that the descriptions of suicide methods can lead to other deaths that imitate the same method. Hence, the fury of protestors to this advert, as it clearly demonstrates the ‘how’.

We hope this case, played out in the world-wide high stakes arena of corporate reputation management, will demonstrate the urgent need for advertising agencies, and their clients, to follow the lead of newspapers and broadcasters in implementing the suicide media reporting guidelines from the Samaritans and other leading mental health organisations.

 In 2003, Amy was involved in producing the media reporting guidelines for Mind Out for Mental Health, the Department of Health’s campaign to target stigma and discrimination in mental health. This programme was the precussor to the excellent high impact Time to Change programme, in which Amy was also involved producing the brand and undertaking audience insights research.