Ho-Ho, Uh Oh: A Case Study on Unethical Marketing


It’s the end of the year, and with the associated holidays, time for another look at the issues facing marketing professionals and academics in the social media industry. This week we examine social responsibility, and in particular a situation in which things went terribly wrong.


Ethics in marketing graphic

Caveat emptor? In the modern digital era, perhaps caveat venditor (warning to seller) is better advice. “Let the buyer beware,” is a philosophy that has been largely discarded in favor of corporate social responsibility (CSR) secondary to the rise in acceptance and use of social media by companies and the consumer communities that support them. This move can be directly attributed to the two-way communication capabilities inherent. Today’s savvy buyers are much more aware about what they buy, with more than 8 out of 10 prospective customers investigating Internet sources prior to purchasing products and services. With the majority of buyers being so well-informed, ethical marketing decisions become mission critical.

Yet incidents of so-called black hat marketing practices persist in the online domain. This becomes problematic since research shows observed unethical marketing practices reduce and diminish consumer faith.

In an ever escalating effort to reach audiences, some marketers have embraced the concept of shock value in an effort to position their marketplace offerings as edgy; an example of such attempts can be found in a video titled Top 10: Scariest/Creepiest Commercials. These efforts can sometimes border on the offensive, however, and in so doing cross into the domain of unethical behavior. This was arguably the case when Hyundai’s ad agency, Innocean, released an advertisement designated ‘Pipe Job’, in which a man commits a failed suicide attempt via asphyxiation by breathing the exhaust of a Hyundai ix35. Intended to demonstrate the ecologically safe feature of the car, e.g. 100% water emissions, and do so with strategic outcomes of viewers sharing the video across social networking sites; it instead resulted in a backlash of public outrage and was quickly removed.

Initial industry response to the ad was positive, but the approval proved to be short-lived. Within days of release London ad copywriter Holly Brockwell posted a blog in which she related how her father had ended his own life in a similar manner and included a copy of the suicide note he had written.

The most scathing indictment was the blog post itself, in which the marketing professional’s heartbreaking viewing experience is related in open letter format to the auto maker and its advertising agency. The video was described as “tasteless,” “mocking,” and “hopelessly crass,” by Time online journalist Matt Peckham.

Designations of marketing communication approaches described as unethical are very often subjective in nature, and are rooted in social comparison theory. In the Pipe Job ad, criticism related to the insensitivity to the tragic circumstances encountered by the victims and their families of suicide. As one whose close family member violently ended their own life, the author is in agreement with the critic’s assessment. The impact of suicide on family members is significant and complex, and bereaved family members experience feelings of depression and vulnerability which may persist for substantial time periods. Family and friends may be devastated, and can suffer emotional states of fault, catastrophe, antagonism, bewilderment and anguish. While the commercial was quickly pulled by Hyundai, Pipe Job remains as a disastrous instance of unethical online marketing.


We hope you found insight and edification from this, the last Grannelle blog post of 2015. Grannelle will be taking some time off to celebrate another year and will return after the first of January to bring you more original academically viable content designed for professionals, instructors and students. We’d like to offer the opportunity to follow us by subscribing; just click the link to the right. Please join us then, and in the meantime we wish you the very best of continued success in the days to come!

Happy holiday wishes from the Grannelle pups

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About Grannelle

eMarketing Scholar
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