Suicide is painless. But is it funny?

hbo_curb_hangingI didn’t really give these billboards much notice – I’m pretty jaded to advertising – so it took a complaint by my friend Rodleen’s on Facebook to grab my attention.

To promote the newest season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” HBO has posted numerous billboards around LA showing the victim of suicide by hanging above the show’s star, Larry David, asking via text, “Is it me?”

It’s humor befitting of the show. But is it appropriate to post all over the city?

Rodleen’s take: “I understand humor can be dark, but a poster depicting suicide is truly brutal to the heart. ┬áIt has the potential to drive someone to the edge.”

While I haven’t heard much about these billboards, today in the LA Times Steve Lopez writes about how a billboard depicting a vagina for an Absolut vodka ad in Los Angeles remains up, while another one critical of Mercury Insurance, purchased by a consumer watchdog group, was removed after a complaint by Mercury.

Alas, while one billboard exhibiting the spirit of free speech and nary a naughty word has been pulled down, two billboards, one with a vagina, the other with a suicide victim, both with the backing of billion dollar corporations, remain up. Who says capitalism is dead?

Personally, the only kinds of billboards I find offensive are those that cover, and sometimes damage, historical properties not originally intended for display ads. Besides that, anything goes. Still, in the spirit of community, one would hope that the billboard companies, or properties that allow these to be displayed, would be more apt to restrict ads that offend the populace that has to see them than any that potential clients, based miles away, will never see.

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8 Replies to “Suicide is painless. But is it funny?”

  1. I personally don’t see how an image of somebody hanging, especially in a context like this, has the potential to drive somebody to suicide. If they’re in that fragile of a state, there are likely plenty of otherwise non-threatening triggers that are just as likely to push them over the edge.

  2. I don’t think it’s the issue of driving someone to suicide, but more the fact that it’s making a joke about a very serious issue. As someone who is clinically depressed and has had suicidal thoughts before, this ad is both ignorant, and simply not funny.

  3. The Absolut mango graphic didn’t look like a vag to me. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: “I serve with Vag, I know Vag, Vag is a friend of mine. Mango, you’re no Vag.” I didn’t think it looked like a vag any more than this does. I sent the Times piece to a friend who I know knows vag very well, and this was his response:

    “I have seen a few. some of them recently. that don’t look like any of them to me.” So perhaps it was wishful thinking on the article writer’s part.

    That being said, billboards are very obtrusive. They’re not like cable tv channels that we can just switch off. Drivers, pedestrians, and others often cannot simply avoid looking at them (indeed, they’re designed and placed to grab our maximum attention). So IMO the folks who post them have a duty not to post graphics that too many people would find tasteless or offensive. Thus, if a lot of people feel that way about the Absolut ad or the HBO ad and complain about either or both, the ad(s) should be taken down from the billboard(s).

  4. Bus Bench was recently bitching about a bus stop ad for the new, odious Melrose Place TV show that says “Tuesday is a bitch.”

  5. I can see how someone might potentially be bothered by this if it reminds them of something they (or someone close to them) went through. I have a family history of suicide, so I don’t take it lightly. But I don’t think comedians or advertisers–or in this case the intersection of both–can go around wondering if there’s any way what they’re putting out there might possibly be hurtful to someone. If it’s something obviously painful to the population at large, that’s one thing. You wouldn’t put up a billboard of a plane crash right after 9-11. But to cater to every individual’s life circumstance is impossible. The pizza slogan “What do you want on your Tombstone?” might set you off if your dad just died yesterday.

  6. As someone who has been clinically depressed and has had suicidal thoughts in the past, I can tell you no damn billboard is gonna push me over the edge. Leave that to my brain chemistry, addictive personality and inability to handle social situations. whoosh! Nothin’ but net.

  7. The issue isn’t, as Rodleen framed it, whether the poster would drive someone to suicide. The issue is a matter of editorial and marketing judgment: whether the poster is too tasteless or offensive to the community that it doesn’t belong on a giant billboard that is visible to everyone who passes by, including children.

    We might agree that a billboard depicting bestiality is inappropriate not because it is likely to drive lots of people to commit bestiality, but because the depiction on a giant billboard visible to everyone who passes nearby is tasteless and offensive on its face.

    In this case, the HBO image might be really cool and edgy if it appeared, say, in a trade magazine, or on a premium cable channel, or somewhere else where its visibility is a bit more controlled. Hopefully, the HBO marketing execs at least considered whether the image, on a huge billboard in a crowded city, might be inappropriate on its face, without regard to actual psychological effect.

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