Kia Motors America went into damage-control mode this week because of controversial ads created for Kia Motors do Brazil, the automaker's independent distributor in South America's biggest market.
The ads, intended to promote the Kia Sportage's dual-zone climate control feature, are comic strip-style spots that have family-friendly images on one side, juxtaposed with racy, adult reimaging the scenarios on the other.
One of the ads plays on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, and another ad shows a male teacher helping an elementary school girl as the comic's subject. It's the latter that has many outraged because of its overtones of lust and pedophilia.
The ads were submitted to the prestigious Cannes Lions advertising festival and contest held in France this week and captured the silver medal.
Blogs and news outlets jumped on the story after it surfaced on Wednesday. The controversy has gone viral, with outraged fans taking to Kia's Twitter and Facebook profiles to air their disgust.
Kia's U.S. arm issued a statement Friday denouncing the ads and distancing itself from Kia Motors do Brazil.
"We can guarantee this advertisement has never and will never be used in any form in the United States, and our global headquarters in Seoul, South Korea is addressing the issue with the independent Brazilian distributor," KMA said in a statement.
Kia has responded to individual posts on Facebook and Twitter, explaining that it had no hand in the ad.
"We're doing everything we can to inform consumers and the media that this was not a Kia Motors America-sanctioned ad, and like the American consumers, we find it totally offensive and inappropriate," said Michael Sprague, KMA's vice president of marketing and communications. "Through our social media sites, through our dealers, members of the media and our employees, we are communicating as much as we can to get the word out that this did not come from us."
On the Cannes Lions website, Moma Propaganda of Brazil is listed as the ad agency and Kia Motors is listed as the client.
Kia Motors Corp. spokesman Michael Choo said in an e-mail late Saturday that the ads were only submitted to the Cannes Lions contest and not used in an actual advertising campaign.
"The ads in question were created by a local agency in Brazil without the knowledge of either global HQ nor KMA," Choo said. "We have received confirmation that these ads were never published nor were there any plans to run a campaign based on these creatives in Brazil or anywhere else for that matter. We can ensure that these ads have not been run in public other than being submitted for the Cannes Lions competition and that they will not appear in any public forum in the future."
Either way, the damage, largely, has already been done.
The silver lining, if there is one, is that this is a "teachable moment" for the auto industry.
Before the rise of the blogosphere and social media, this story likely wouldn't have appeared on our radar screens.
But in this case, the Kia brand, the subject of rebuilding efforts by officials in Korea and the United States, has a black eye because the sleazy spots went viral.
Why? Because a decision-maker in Brazil gave this ad the green light, or worse, failed to stop it.