Hyundai's Message to Space: Did It Cross The Line?
Has there ever been a more emotionally touching, cosmically enchanting car ad than Hyundai’s epic four-minute “Message to Space,” which has now racked up a staggering 58.9 million views on YouTube?
“Message To Space,” created by agency Innocean Worldwide, depicts how Hyundai worked with a 13-year-old girl who appears to be Stephanie Virts of Houston, daughter of NASA astronaut Terry Virts, to send a message to her father as he circles the Earth in the International Space Station. Her message ‘Steph Loves You,’ inscribed in giant letters across 2.1 square miles of the floor of Nevada’s Delamar Dry Lake by the tires of 11 Hyundai Genesis vehicles, was apparently easily visible to her father in space.
But what if parts - significant parts - of this breathtaking video story were staged? What if some of the father-daughter resonance of Hyundai’s “Message to Space” video wasn’t quite what it seems? Here’s the Hyundai ‘Message to Space’ spot in all of its glory, along with a “behind-the-scenes, making of” video:
That Hyundai’s Genesis cars wrote a message in the sand is indisputable - the performance on the ground was certified by Guinness World Records as being the world’s largest tire-track image. Hyundai’s PR bonanza for the audacious stunt included coverage from Time magazine to ABC-TV News. AdWeek praised the spot as “a sweet and pretty otherworldly stunt.” AdAge chose “Message to Space” for its Creativity Top 5 and awarded Hyundai the #1 spot on its Viral Video Chart.
But then last April 21, Canada’s Globe and Mail published a remarkable article entitled, “NASA Puts Space Between Itself and Hyundai Ad Campaign,” that cast doubt on what occurred in the sky above those autos.
The piece quoted NASA spokeswoman Jennifer Knotts as insisting that no NASA employees (including any astronauts) actually appeared in the Hyundai video. What’s more, added the NASA PR woman, when Hyundai originally contacted NASA, the automaker “told us they were going to use an actor to stage the scene (aboard the ISS).” NASA said they advised Hyundai about public domain footage shot inside the International Space Station, as well as footage of Earth as seen from the station, footage that - of course - was shot prior to the events depicted in Hyundai’s spot.
“If Hyundai used an actor to simulate shots on board the ISS, as Ms. Knotts said was their plan as told to NASA,” the Globe & Mail wrote, “that might not necessarily get around the rules - particularly if the family was compensated for their appearance in the video. Hyundai would not respond to questions about whether members of the family were paid.”
Yes, yes - of course, we’re talking truth in advertising, of all things. But consider:
- When consumers watch the film, ‘Avengers 2,’ they know that Robert Downey Jr can’t really fly.
- When an audience watches magician David Copperfield in Las Vegas, they expect to be deceived and defrauded.
- In contrast, TV audiences expect that their TV news anchors (hello, Brian Williams) will refrain from fooling them.
To explore the issues raised by “Message to Space,” we reached out to Minneapolis advertising executives Chris Preston, EVP-Creative Director for agency Preston Kelly; John Blackburn, Strategic Planning Director for mono; and Corey Johnson, president of agency Solve (as seen above) - we also contacted NASA, Hyundai and the car maker’s agency, Innocean. Here’s what we uncovered:
Why was the "Message to Space" spot awesome?
“Why is this Hyundai spot so successful?” asked mono’s John Blackburn, a veteran of Minneapolis agency Fallon’s legendary BMW Films campaign.
“Because it’s so infrequent that you fascinate people with a TV ad, that an agency creates a spectacle! At first, I thought – oh, no, Hyundai was operating in the most tired cliché of automotive advertising, which is driving a car through some Bonneville salt flats, kicking up dust as the morning sun hits your sheet metal. Agencies love deserts because there’s no traffic laws to follow on a dry lake bed, and no distractions from showing off your car in a dynamic situation, with great lighting. But when ‘Message To Space’ got to the girl, Stephanie – they took a familiar setting and put a story around it, Hyundai made it emotional with the relationship between the girl and her father. I thought, “Holy cow, you could really see that message from Space?” You wonder if her Dad saw it, and that’s what keeps you watching - it’s just great storytelling.”
Preston Kelly’s Preston noted that this spot, championing the All-American heroism of the U.S. space agency, NASA, was shot by a South Korean marketing team with a French production designer for a Korean car brand with music by the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra. “The ‘Message to Space’ ad elevated that theme of American ingenuity, recognized a revered set of American ideals tied to NASA, even though Hyundai is not an American company,” says Preston. “ ‘Message to Space’ made you proud to be an American – consumers think, hey, those guys get ‘us’ even if they’re foreign, and that’s good for the Hyundai brand.”
No matter whether parts of the four-minute Hyundai spot might have been staged, it’s a stone cold masterpiece of video storytelling – the crisp editing and use of Johann Strauss’ “Voices of Spring” waltz, in particular, is exquisite.
If Hyundai Staged Some of the Spot, So What?
“Was the spot intentionally misleading?” asks Preston. “Ethically ambiguous? I think that poetic license is understood with so obvious a commercial enterprise. By not naming the astronaut in ‘Message To Space’ and using commercial storytelling for the event, I think Hyundai was within the boundaries of dramatization ethics as consumer viewers understand them.”
Magicians know that it’s not what a conjuror does that makes audiences gasp, it’s what your audience thinks you do - the real magic occurs in an audience member’s head. There is often a huge discrepancy between what’s perceived and what actually occurs in a magician’s hands. Houdini didn’t need to make an elephant disappear, he merely had to convince an audience that the elephant no longer existed on his stage - two very different things. So isn’t it enough for Hyundai to make viewers believe they are watching every moment of this remarkable stunt - even if they are gently tricking us to connects the dots in the ‘Message to Space’ video that aren’t entirely connected by on-camera reality?
“In this era of trust and authenticity, Hyundai danced around the line,” says Blackburn. “I think you either have to fake the whole thing or none of it. We in advertising have been digging our hole with half truths for years. There’s all sorts of fake, manufactured, photoshopped advertising - but consumers expect honesty today. With Fallon’s BMW Films (where I was a part of a massive team, personally working on distribution strategy), we were honest about the BMW films - featuring stars like Madonna and Clive Owen - being Hollywood stories that never pretended they were real life.”
“Wieden & Kennedy’s ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ TV spots for Old Spice with Isaiah Mustafa were over the top, surreal entertainment,” adds Solve's Johnson. “No consumer would think it’s real that Isaiah had unicorns running around him or diamonds were magically pouring out of his palms. Same with the TV spots Skittles developed by its agency TBWA - those TV spots are crazy, weird and entertaining. In one Skittles spot, a lady is walking a cloud and when a guy tries to pet the cloud, it strikes him with lighting and skittles candy rains down. It’s funny, consumers remember it, but no one believes it depicts reality.”
What line should advertisers not cross?
“You have to ask - what line should advertisers not cross?,” says Preston. “Over my 30 years in the advertising business, I had the challenge of working under strict guidelines regulating advertising for kids cereals - you had to be careful when marketing to children. With marketing to adults, the line is blurry - and it should be. The couple in the Levi’s TV spot? They don’t really fall in love. That party on the beach for Corona beer? That wasn’t really an authentic party. Those images looked real, but they’re not - isn’t that manipulative in its own way?”
So, could Hyundai have opened the four-minute spot with a disclaimer that the spot was ‘based on actual events’?
“If it’s an actual event that they are re-portraying, it would have been nice to say it was a dramatization,” says Preston. “But ‘Message to Space’ is a much better story without those words at the beginning. In fact, you would have cut down on the video’s effectiveness instead of letting consumers enjoy the story. Honestly? This Hyundai spot never struck me as an authentic documentary from the start. There’s too much time spent milking expressions from the little girl, the lighting is too good and the drama too manufactured. People recognize by the end that it’s an ad for Hyundai and you forgive its trespasses because you enjoy the stunt, you’re proud of the American space station and you’re touched by the father and daughter relationship. I think viewers have a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in what is a semi-believable ad.”
Johnson points to the HUVr Board hoax in spring 2014, when skateboard phenom Tony Hawk participated in a 4.5-minute video (below) from the fictitious corporation HUVr Tech (actually, Funny Or Die) that seemed to promote a real life version of Michael J. Fox’s levitating hoverboard from the movie, “Back To The Future”
“Advertisers have a contract with consumers, but that trust is a blurred line,” says Johnson. “Where this ‘Message to Space’ crossed the line is when it was trying to portray real events which may not have happened this way. We talk everyday at our agency about being authentic in depicting products in our campaigns. In the past, food photography would use steam from an iron to make the food appear piping hot, or glue for milk in a cereal ad. The goal was to make the food appear appetizing, even if it was not real. Consumers do not want to be deceived that way anymore.”
“A disclaimer - something like ‘what follows is based on a true occurrence’ - could have been put into this Hyundai spot,” concludes Johnson, whose agency works for Porsche. “But once people see that warning, they know something fantastic is about to follow that may not be real, and that will cut down on views. YouTube has desensitized consumers to what is reality - lots of things that get millions of views on YouTube are quite unrealistic!”
So Was Hyundai’s Message To Space A Success?
“You can’t argue with 58 million views of this Hyundai spot on YouTube,” marvels Preston. “It was a brand win. Contrasting the intimacy of her hand-drawn message to Dad with the immensity and technology of space, and the cars writing in unison across miles of lake bed is effective. You get drawn into the story despite your jaded consumer sense that something isn’t quite kosher. It may not be a particularly effective seller of that Genesis model - for example, it didn’t make me want to run out a buy a Genesis so I could drive my signature in the sand. But it made me feel something for Hyundai!”
“The ‘Message to Space’ film was most effective as an emotional, engaging story - it was a beautiful story with very good production values - but it fell short in terms of brand relevance,” says Johnson. “There was nothing in the ‘Message to Space’ spot that was uniquely about the Genesis pulling off that feat, you could do the same thing with any car. Essentially, you could replace the Genesis with any vehicle and it would carry the same level of brand relevance.”
“The car business is a brand game and sales are important,” says Blackburn. “To my mind, the video differentiates Hyundai rather than Genesis, and I’m okay with that. Hyundai are still trying to outposition the American and Japanese brands and you got a really good look at the Genesis here. But ‘Message to Space’ wasn’t about Genesis, it was about the Hyundai brand.”
We reached out to Hyundai Motor’s global PR team to ask if the footage of NASA astronaut was actually of Terry Virts (as the spot implied) or was a simulation with an actor; if the ISS space vehicle pictured in the video was the actual ISS vehicle at the moment that astronaut Virts witnessed his daughter’s giant ‘message’; and if a NASA astronaut actually took a photo of his daughter’s love note carved into the Nevada desert.
JJ Ghim of Hyundai’s PR department replied: “Concerning your questions: We cannot comment on your questions...all we can say is that it’s based on a real story.”
Okay. When we sent similar inquiries to the Innocean ad agency based out of Seoul, Korea, its PR manager Albert Lee responded: “My colleagues and I reviewed your questions, and we apologize that we cannot provide the details you seek.” Added Lee: “The final product of the campaign film is all based on facts. However, we cannot further discuss the details of the production process due to NASA regulations. We hope that you understand the position we are in.”
On subsequent views, as if watching M. Night Shyamalan “Sixth Sense” film for the second and third time, you can pick up clues in “Message To Space” you may have missed the first time: the image of Stephanie’s Dad in a picture frame at 0:18 where his face is smudged out, the father/astronaut’s face in soft focus at 0:30, the father shot from behind snapping pictures through the station’s window at 0:40, the image of Stephanie’s father’s head that’s cut off at 3:00, and how he’s photographed from behind at 3:19.
“I’m not an expert in NASA rules and regulations,” says Preston. “But it does feel like Hyundai intentionally pushed the boundaries right to the edge as far as using an actual NASA astronaut for commercial gain goes. Did they cross them? I don’t think so.”
Stephanie Schierholz, a public affairs officer with NASA, responded to the MaccaPR blog’s questions with a response that included the following:
“As a government agency funded by taxpayer, we are prohibited from making endorsements, and NASA employees are subject to ethics restrictions that prohibit employees from using their title, position or authority to endorse a product, service or enterprise. As a result, NASA did not support the ‘Message to Space’ commercial. NASA did advise Hyundai about NASA’s imagery use guidelines. The NASA imagery used in the making of the commercial...is available for public use...none of the images was directed to be obtained for the purposes of the commercial...the Earth views are from publicly available footage, as is the body-only view of an astronaut.”
NASA then referred MaccaPR to Hyundai for any questions about casting, filming or astronaut participation in the commercial.
“I think most consumers have a tolerance for certain levels of dramatization, but there’s a kind of reversal when you intentionally go to such lengths to try to portray something as real when it is not,” concludes Johnson. “Message to Space" tugs at your heart strings and leaves you feeling a little duped when the dubious nature of its authenticity is called in to question. If viewers had known it was ‘based on true events’ going in, Hyundai would have lost a lot of interest, viewers and shares. As consumers are finding this out later, Hyundai could lose a little shine off their brand.”
“Advertisers frequently spin pretty fiction to entice consumers,” concluded the Globe & Mail, one of the only media outlets to raise questions about the video. “But considering the current preoccupation with authenticity, brands may want to be cautious about promoting true stories that could raise viewers’ skepticism, lest they tarnish the emotional connection they are trying to forge.”
So what do you as marketers - and as potential purchasers of Hyundai automobiles - feel about Hyundai’s ‘Message To Space’ - and the wiggle room that marketers take in telling their products’ stories in a way that may not be precisely...authentic? Did Hyundai, and its agency, cross a line here? Or is that a line that consumers are happy to see crossed in exchange for being entertained by a great story, told eloquently by a masterful marketer?
Image Sources: Hyundai YouTube, Hyundai, Forbes, Maccabee PR, Global News
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Paul Maccabee is president at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency.