GM and VW heed outcry, pull suicide-themed ads

NEW YORK:Two automakers this month found that suicide wasn't the ad strategy of choice, after mental health professionals and suicide prevention organizations complained about the tenor of two high-profile ads.

NEW YORK:Two automakers this month found that suicide wasn't the ad strategy of choice, after mental health professionals and suicide prevention organizations complained about the tenor of two high-profile ads.

Though theirs ads were different, General Motors and Volkswagen both pulled spots after the companies were denounced for their insensitivity to viewers suffering from severe depression, as well as families and friends who have lost loved ones to suicide. In the United States alone, suicide claims approximately 30,000 lives annually.

In GM's ad, which originally aired during the Super Bowl to mostly positive critique, an assembly-line robot throws itself off a bridge after a bad day at work. Walking a similarly fine line was Volkswagen, who's "Jumper" spot features a distressed guy about to leap to his death from a building - until learning that three VW cars are available for under $17,000 each.

The ads' intentions might have been innocent, said Robert Gebbia, executive director of The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), but "you wouldn't see someone use cancer to sell products."

According to AFSP's Gebbia, while suicide has been used as a commercial theme in the past, people are speaking out more now than ever before. "We've been inundated with emails and calls," he said. "In the past, people were more likely to keep it private, or be ashamed."

The corporate communications departments of both automakers said that they were not doing any further outreach behind the initial pulling of the ads.

Ryndee Carney, GM's corporate communications manager, advertising and marketing, said the automaker learned from the experience. 

"You have you have to be somewhat edgy to break through the clutter of Super Bowl ads. But it's a very fine line that you walk," Carney said.

Carney also noted that "none of the research we did indicated this would turn out to be as sensitive an issue" as it has become.

In GM's ad, fortunately for the robot, the scene turned out to be a dream sequence - the robot had a second chance. The spot does, as well, said Carney. The commercial has been revised for use on-air and the automaker's Web site.

Steve Keyes, VW's director of corporate communications, said the company pulled its ad, in part, due to the "raised awareness of mental health issues" after the GM ad drew heat.

When asked - prior to its initial airing - by groups including AFSP and the Suicide Prevention Action Network USA, to shelf the spot, VW originally said it would not shy away from controversy. He added that the campaign's two other ads in the campaign, which depict downtrodden people brightened up by VW sales, will continue to air.

"This ad was more about optimism," Keyes said. "The person depicted actually walked away."

Organizations such as AFSP want to stress that they don't want to be case-by-case media watchdogs, Gebbia said. "We want to get the message to advertisers, to become more sensitive to the issues of mental illness and suicide, and not use these themes in their campaigns."

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