Activists successfully target "suicidal" robot

In the UK we enjoy humour in our adverts – often at the expense of knowing what the commercial is about.  But increasingly, public relations needs to be offer a sanity check, since some jokes are offending vocal publics – or at least, activist groups.

General Motors ran an advert featuring a “suicidal” robot in the US recently – but following objections from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention,  it has agreed to make amends.  The GM advert has survived though – on  – with other online media such as Autoblog interviewing the robot. 

VW has pulled its own advert using a suicide theme – and has an interesting reflection on whether such shocking themes are necessary to get audience attention, especially if aiming to reach young people.   With edgy themes common currency in video games and home-made YouTube spots, is this a problem of advertisers not matching the medium to the message?

Are activist groups using the controversy to advance their own agendas?  Or is the general public increasingly offended by sensitive topics being used for marketing purposes? 

If the advertisers are so readily giving in to pressure groups – are they happy with the 15 seconds of fame – or are they pressurised by agencies who love controversial ads, which get them talked about?  Are clients responding to the negative impact on their reputations?  If so, who is signing off on such adverts – and where is the strategic public relations advice?

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

8 thoughts on “Activists successfully target "suicidal" robot”

  1. Kurt Schneider, general manager of creative content at Volkswagen said: “What we wanted to do was create different scenarios with the whole idea that optimism prevails over negatives or bad situations.” So what is it that tempted the guy from the edge? Please can you show me the link? Does it survive on YouTube?

    Wheeling out the management at the fist sign of controversy might make them appear like they are genuinely in touch with their publics and doing the ‘right thing’?

  2. Here is a link to the VW advert –

    I think there is increasing cynicism over the textbook PR crisis management approach of senior management apologising for getting things wrong. We’ve seen it with Cadbury’s over the recall of Easter Eggs ( This is portrayed by the company as doing the right thing – but isn’t it more important to avoid having to say you are sorry in the first place?

  3. Ah, I see the VW ad now, thanks.

    Avoiding saying your sorry doesn’t get you out there I suppose. I sound cynical, but I’m really not. Is there a view of stirring things up to get the attention of an otherwise oblivious public these days

  4. But that’s a press agentry approach to crisis management – much better to be known for positive things in your reputation rather than be known as an organisation that gets it wrong a lot. Still, it will always be better to apologise than not – you’ve just got to be seen as genune and not keep making the same mistake.

  5. How can one apology be more sincere than another? I’m not sure I would see through one that wasn’t genuine.

  6. Jill – you must know the difference between when someone says they are sorry and means it and when they know it is just the right thing to say. Even small children are adept at the “better say I’m sorry” tactic – come to that, my dogs do a mean act in grovelling without sincerity….

  7. I’ve got children and dogs, who usually refuse to look me in the eye if they’ve done something wrong (the dogs that is). It’s a case of head in sand type of behaviour I think!

    But, seriously, if you’re not adept at reading body language or know that particular person very well, how would you see through them?

  8. I think reputation and trust come in here – has that organisation a poor name for letting people down, does their apology feel genuine, are the words personal or do they remind you of a train announcer apology? Ultimately, if we don’t feel able to trust the organisation next time, then their apology didn’t seem genuine to us. If we trust them and they do it again, no amount of sorry will make a difference.

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