Op-Ed: Commercial Appall

By Jordan Teicher 

Recognizing mistakes retroactively is easy. After the damage is done, heads roll downhill as people ask, “Who could’ve let this happen?” At times, the criticism can be unfounded. The political correctness machine does not care much for different sides to an offensive story. But sometimes, in cases of extreme public blunders, the story only has one side.

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen two thoughtless content blunders – one from Mountain Dew, the other for Hyundai – that resulted in serious and immediate public backlash. Mountain Dew’s goat spot was developed by rapper Tyler, the Creator, and was quickly pulled by Pepsi Co. after viewers complained of racism and misogyny. As you’ll see in the above ABC News clip, it’s also being referred to as “the most racist commercial ever” for the way it reinforces black stereotypes. The Hyundai spot, which aimed to pull humor and brand equity out of a failed garage suicide attempt, may go down as one of the most insensitive commercials ever. Hyundai reached out to AgencySpy, hoping to distance itself from the bad press about an hour after we published excerpts of a heartfelt blog post from Holly Brockwell, a London-based copywriter whose father died in a similar manner to what was portrayed in the ad.


The key issue regarding these commercials is not about whether they’re offensive, but rather, how they got made in the first place. With all of the workers who contribute and approve these types of campaigns, it’s hard to fathom the lack of awareness needed to push out something so tasteless. Even AgencySpy commenters, who are petty, contrarian, and argumentative just about every day, voiced their unanimous displeasure with the inappropriate Hyundai spot.

In the aftermath of the initial criticism flood, the two companies handled the fallout differently. Hyundai apologized and immediately shifted blame onto Innocean Europe, claiming the agency produced the offensive content on its own. Mountain Dew’s apology was equal parts accountable and trite. The sponsored tweet read: “Hey guys – made a big mistake we’ve removed the offensive video from our channels. #fail.” Both responses have their flaws – Hyundai’s strained corporate speak, Mountain Dew’s social media silliness – but after the unnecessary hashtagging, the discussion began to focus on whether or not a major brand like Mountain Dew could capitalize effectively on their original mistake with this type of online apology. The news cycle keeps moving, but should we really move past these transgressions so quickly?

These blatant public blunders offer everyone in the industry a firm example of what not to create. There’s always going to be a need for edgy material, and sometimes edgy and offensive can blur together depending on perspective, but that inner-voice of common sense that most of us have needs to be double- and triple-checked in today’s culture. If disparaging tweets can get someone fired, what happens to those who flub major brand accounts with terrible judgment? On a human level, avoiding the insensitivity is implied. On an economic level, these poor decisions only compound the impact.

I couldn’t tell you how an ad poking fun at suicide makes its way from brain to mouth, let alone finds its way to the public. But I can tell you with a good deal of certainty that as agencies strive to carve out business with offbeat viral content, these incidents will surface occasionally. So, the next time you’re brainstorming, think twice about the consequences of a potential idea. And then think again.