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Mental health group wants BMW's 'crazy' car ad canceled

BMW ad
Source: BMW

A mental health group is calling "foul" on this edgy TV ad being aired during the NCAA basketball tournament—and wants it benched.

The new BMW commercial, highlighting the car's high-end communication system, is drawing heat because of its depiction of a couple scared off by a "crazy lady" outside a creepy house.

"I was really quite shocked," said Linda Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, about the BMW ad, which was flagged to her by basketball fans among her staffers. "I thought they were a more sophisticated company, to be honest."

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Rosenberg, whose group represents 2,200 mental health and addiction organizations, quickly fired off a letter to the automaker saying she was "deeply dismayed" by the commercial.

"I am writing to request you pull it immediately," she wrote.

She also offered executives at BMW and the ad agency, kbs, a course known as "Mental Health First Aid," which provides training for dealing with people in crisis. First lady Michelle Obama endorsed the program last month.

BMW responded by telling Rosenberg that "we sincerely apologize that this ad was offensive to you."

"Please be assured that your sentiments will be heard and considered," Eileen Paletta, BMW's executive customer communications manager, replied in an email that the council shared with CNBC.

But the company has not agreed to yank the ad for the tournament's Final Four weekend, which begins Saturday night. "We got the brush-off," Rosenberg said.

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The ad, entitled "Cute Cottage," shows a 2015 BMW X3 xDrive driving down a desolate, overgrown path marked by a sign reading "Sprout Brook Inn." The crossover SUV pulls up to an old house surrounded by a gloomy, heavily wooded area. The effect is that of the beginning of a horror movie.

"Is this it?" the male passenger worriedly asks his female companion, who is driving. "OK," he continues. "There's a lady on the porch and she looks crazy."

BMW ad
Source: BMW

The camera then cuts to a disheveled-looking woman—actress Celeste Pechous—wearing an oversized house dress and cardigan, who is staring blank-faced at the couple.

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The female driver quickly asks "Siri," the Apple personal assistance app, "Can you tell us about the Sprout Brook Inn?" and gets a chilling answer.

"I found some information about the Sprout Brook Inn slayings," says Siri, garbling the last word. The startled driver says, "Slayings?"

Her male passenger then hits a button for BMW Assist, the car's own assistance feature, and asks that it "book us at the closest five-hotel."

The driver chimes in saying "furthest," which the man echoes to BMW Assist. The man says "go, go, go, go!" as they hurriedly back up—leaving the lady on the porch.

Rosenberg told CNBC, "We're not happy when somebody uses that word"—crazy—saying "it's an old stereotype that someone with a mental illness is dangerous."

But, she added, "I try not to be the language police."

"This went beyond just the word for us," Rosenberg said. "It was saying that word, and then behaving as if someone who has a mental illness doesn't deserve your help. ...They're just going to walk away."

Rosenberg said of BMW, "I'm sure they have staff whose lives have been touched by mental illness, or have relatives who have mental illness. ... I think there would be somebody in a company of that size who would be sensitive to this issue."

Asked for comment about Rosenberg's concerns, BMW spokesman Alexander Bilgeri, said, "We are deeply sorry to anyone that was offended by this ad as it was certainly not our intention."

"The ad was intended to spoof a horror movie," Bilgeri said.

When asked if it would continue to run, specifically during the Final Four, BMW said, "The ad is naturally starting to run out of our ad-buy rotation."