By Lenny Bernstein March 31
If you’ve been watching the NCAA tournament the past couple of weeks, there’s almost no chance you’ve missed the BMW ad above, which touts the car’s on-board assistance capability. I feel like I’ve seen it at least 10 times.
Couple drives up to a bed-and-breakfast where they’re headed for a little vacation, only to find a scary, sketchy, nearly deserted cottage, with a disheveled woman out front. “Okay, there’s a lady on the porch, she looks crazy,” the guy says. They quickly connect to Siri and find out about the “slayings” there, book themselves a room at a five-star resort via the car’s assistance feature and back their shiny new BMW out fast.
The National Council for Behavioral Health says the ad is offensive on two counts. First, it features an inaccurate caricature of a mentally ill person, one the group and its 2,000 member organizations have been trying to expunge from the mass media. But more importantly, said Linda Rosenberg, the organization’s president and CEO, the ad shows exactly the wrong thing to do when faced with a person in obvious mental or emotional distress. That’s another thing the organization and its allies have been trying hard to change.
“Our position is that if they were driving up to a hotel, and the person were having a coronary, they wouldn’t drive away,” Rosenberg said. They’d call 911 or use the car’s assistance feature.
The group sent a letter to Alexander Bilgeri, BMW’s vice president of corporate communications for North America, asking that the company pull the ad immediately. “People generally don’t know what to do when faced with a colleague whose behavior has become erratic, a friend who has become more reclusive, a stranger who is standing on her porch looking … like she needs help,” the letter, signed by Rosenberg, said. She offers “comprehensive training” through the organization’s Mental Health First Aid program to help raise BMW executives’ awareness about how to respond to someone in mental or emotional distress.
I called and e-mailed Bilgeri, but he has not responded so far. I also called the company’s public affairs department and left a message. I’ll update this post when someone gets back to me.
Update: Bilgeri emailed to say he was on a business trip and would get back to me later in the week. Eileen Paletta, BMW’s executive customer communications manager, emailed Rosenberg, saying “we sincerely apologize that this ad was offensive to you. We not only respect your opinion, but are grateful you shared it with us.” She said Rosenberg’s “comments and offer have been formally noted and forwarded to the appropriate department. Please be assured that your sentiments will be heard and considered.”
Later Tuesday afternoon, Bilgeri emailed this statement to me: “We are deeply sorry to anyone that was offended by this ad as it was certainly not our intention. The ad is intended to spoof an all-too familiar-scene from a typical horror film.” There is no mention of whether BMW will pull the ad.
In the meantime, maybe I should take the training myself. None of this dawned on me either, though I’ve watched a lot of basketball and a lot of this ad since the tournament began. I understand why it’s easy to overlook the offensiveness of these stereotypes, even as we’re enjoying a time of great change in attitudes about other previously stigmatized groups. But that doesn’t excuse me shooting an air-ball on this issue.