Suicide advert from Hyundai is almost surreally misguided

April 25th, 2013 by Ben Goldacre in small blogs, suicide | 20 Comments »

The new advert from Hyundai features a depressed man attempting to commit suicide using the exhaust fumes from his car. The advert is on YouTube here, watch at your discretion. There is clear evidence that this kind of content increases the use of specific suicide methods, as I wrote in 2009:

… it has been shown repeatedly that suicide increases in the month after a front page suicide story. There is also evidence that the effect is bigger for famous people and gruesome attempts. You may want to remember that fact for later.

Details matter, as ever. Overdoses increased by 17% in the week after a prominent overdose on Casualty (watched by 22% of the population at the time), and paracetamol overdoses went up by more than others. In 1998 the Hong Kong media reported heavily on a case of carbon monoxide poisoning by a very specific method, using a charcoal burner. In the 10 months preceeding the reports, there had been no such suicides. In November there were 3; then in December there were 10; and over the next year there were 40. You may want to remember that story for later.

And it’s not pie in the sky to suggest that the media should be careful in how they discuss suicide. After the introduction of media reporting guidelines in Austria, for example, there was a significant decrease in the number of people throwing themselves under trains.

So organisations like the Samaritans take this seriously. They suggest that journalists avoid crass phrases like “a ‘successful’ suicide attempt”. They suggest that journalists avoid explicit or technical details of suicide methods, for reasons you can now understand. They suggest that journalists include details of further sources for help and advice, since an article about suicide represents a great opportunity to target people who are at risk with useful information. And they recommend avoiding simplistic explanations for suicide.

There is an open letter to Hyundai here, from someone who’s father killed himself using the method depicted above.

This Hyundai advert is almost unbelievably misguided. I’m also a bit disappointed to see that The Guardian list it today as one of their “best adverts” of the week (their text has now been silently modified, see below, and comments on their piece). No responsible broadcaster should give it airtime, and I hope nobody at Hyundai will be childish enough to regard the attention given to them in this blog post as some kind of victory for their irresponsible, exploitative, attention-seeking and dangerous behaviour.

If you need them, here are the Samaritans’ excellent media guidelines for anyone covering suicide in the public eye.

EDIT 15:20:

Some have tweeted to say it’s not praised as one of the best adverts by the Guardian. Detail, but: in the last fifteen minutes the Guardian page has been silently edited to remove the praise of “best adverts”. It’s still listed as that on the Guardian’s video version here, more critical coverage of this in New Statesman here.

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20 Responses

  1. ptermx said,

    April 25, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Yes. But what possessed you to embed the ad here?

  2. wewillfixit said,

    April 25, 2013 at 3:52 pm

    I agree that the ad is awful, and might have an influence on suicide in general, it is unlikely to cause an increase in method specific suicides. Since catalytic convertors were intoroduced, it has been much more difficult to kill yourself in this way – due to the much reduced levels of CO in the exhaust. You can still poison yourself with the fumes, but it is far less likely to be fatal.

    Unfortunately, as suicides by this method have decreased, there has been some method substitution and hanging has increased to “fill the gap”.

  3. dancj said,

    April 25, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    I can understand the reasons for not showing it, but all of the serious ramifications aside, that is a fantastic advert.

  4. cellocgw said,

    April 25, 2013 at 8:48 pm

    Then there’s the quickly deleted VW ad from maybe 15 years ago(?) showing a fellow driving around, stopping in front of some building, blowing himself up, but the “wonderfully strong, safe…car” contains the entire blast inside the structure.

    I think I’ll stick with the Hulu ads telling us to watch more TV so our brains turn to mush because the aliens like mushy brains for supper.

  5. clobbered said,

    April 26, 2013 at 7:22 am

    Guardian has removed the linked material – page now reads

    “This article was deleted because the headline, subheading and text included references that were inappropriate and inconsistent with Guardian editorial guidelines on the coverage of suicide.”

    It also looks like Hyundai has pulled the ad. According to Forbes (which quotes the good doctor)

    That said… The idea wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python sketch… People seem to be reacting more because it’s an ad that if they had encountered it in a late night comedy show.

  6. sockatume said,

    April 26, 2013 at 8:51 am

    The Guardian has posted an article about the Hyundai advert – written by the same author as their “Best Adverts” piece – which acknowledges the issue. It mentions their own piece, but under its new name, does not mention their name change, and does not acknowledge the author’s attempts to dismiss complaints in the comments section of that article. Which, of course, is wiped from the internet. (Even didn’t get it.)

    Troubling lack of transparency on their part.

  7. ptermx said,

    April 26, 2013 at 9:55 am

    clobbered said: “People seem to be reacting more because it’s an ad that if they had encountered it in a late night comedy show”

    This whole episode is one of morality dressing itself up in science. Sure, “studies have shown” that “suicide increases in the month after a front page suicide story”, but AFAIK no-one knows the specific impact of this particular ad. Ironically, now that Hyundai have withdrawn it, it’s eventual impact will probably owe more to those whose sense of moral outrage led them to repost it all over the web than to Hyundai. I myself only ever saw it in the context of people expressing moral indignation about it.

  8. sockatume said,

    April 26, 2013 at 11:38 am

    ptermx, are you seriously arguing about the whole idea of providing general guidelines against potentially-harmful behavior?

    You can’t determine the specific impact of any particular car crash, but if studies show that wearing seat belts reduces the number of deaths in car crashes, people are going to wear seat belts.

  9. ptermx said,

    April 26, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Sockatume: I’m quite prepared to believe that images of suicide can influence certain people to commit suicide. After all, if that were not true then ad agencies might find it difficult to explain how paying them to produce glitzy images of consumption stimulates … consumption.
    However, if there’s a specific ‘case’ against Hyundai here, it’s either that (i) their ad itself caused harm; or (ii) that their ad failed to comply with some legal requirement. I’m not aware that either applies. What we’re left with then, is that by causing widespread offense and resentment (rationalized in public by reference to the ‘science’ of imagery’s effects on human behaviour), the ad damages Hyundai’s business more than it enhances it. That’s why they pulled it.
    As I said before, the irony is that so many people saw the ad only because of those who said they thought it shouldn’t be shown.

  10. sockatume said,

    April 26, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    I don’t think you appreciate that the argument you’re applying against this one case applies to all of the available cases.

  11. ptermx said,

    April 26, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    And they are?

  12. sockatume said,

    April 26, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    …other media depictions of suicide?

  13. Pete said,

    April 27, 2013 at 1:56 am

    Suicide is a tricky thing to determine the cause of, for example, Town Gas was useful to the suicidal as it was poisonous, where natural gas simply suffocated you.

    When Britain switched from Town Gas to Natural Gas people didn’t switch other suicide methods, and the suicide rate dropped.

    Argument being, if you remove a known method people don’t think to find another way.

    Advertising another way to commit does seem terribly irresponsible.

  14. Pete said,

    April 27, 2013 at 1:58 am


    Last line should read

    “Advertising another way to commit suicide does seem terribly irresponsible.”

    But I am sure the more intelligent worked that out. (note to self, proofread more carefully)

  15. Deano said,

    April 27, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Good to have you back out of hibernation Ben 🙂

  16. oddbod said,

    April 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm

    It’s only an issue if you think suicide is bad.

    I don’t.

  17. peter taylor said,

    May 3, 2013 at 10:17 am

    If I’ve got this correctly, no more suicides occur when suicides are shown through the media, just the way in which people commit suicides match that shown.
    Why is there outrage?

    To Pete:
    When Britain switched from Town Gas to Natural Gas people didn’t switch other suicide methods, and the suicide rate dropped.

    Really? As the article makes no such claims. Can you provide a source?

  18. autochutney said,

    May 3, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    I think this is a bad topic for the realm of science and strays into the territory of using scientific evidence to support a personal or professional moral or ethical position. The scientific point is clear – we can say with reasonable confidence that depictions of suicide increase the suicide rate. The question of whether suicide ‘should’ be depicted in the media is only related tangentially to this and it would be necessary to establish a cost metric for suicide in order to assess in a scientific context. Simply implying that suicide is bad and therefore anything that increases suicide rates is bad (and also implying the assumption that not depicting suicide has zero cost associated) is lazy reasoning. There is value in a reasoned ethical debate here but it is a dangerous precedent to set that a statistical link between media portrayal of undesirable actions and the occurrence of those actions justifies censorship. I remain agnostic as to whether this commercial is or is not acceptable, but feel that it is important to highlight the assumptions being made and emphasize the need for a framework for debate that includes all the relevant factors.

  19. heavens said,

    May 5, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    Peter, it’s not just a change in methods. A major media story about a suicide increases the *number* of suicides that happen in the short term. You need to read the articles linked at the top of the long quote, in the sentence that says “it has been shown repeatedly that suicide increases in the month after a front page suicide story.”

  20. ian9outof10 said,

    May 24, 2013 at 8:46 pm


    In fact, that VW ad was not made by VW, it was just someone with some time and talent with special effects and editing.

    The “advert” is still on YouTube, and yes, it’s offensive in a lot of ways: it’s also clever in others.

    At the time, VW couldn’t distance themselves from the advert quickly enough, and rightly so. But it’s funny how time makes people forget that it wasn’t an actual ad. It’s like that Jimmy Savile/Have I Got News For You thing all over again.