Meet the Grandma Behind VW's New Family-Oriented Marketing for Bigger Vehicles

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Seventy-eight-year old Marie Gallagher's hair was wet and in rollers when a couple of casting agents rang her doorbell to interview her for a possible role in a new Volkswagen ad. She wasn't expecting them for another hour, and had even planned to serve them tea and Irish bread that was still in the oven. But now she was scrambling, as she shoved her two-year-old German Shepherd out the back door and tried to calm herself down.

"I thought I was going to be all dolled up looking like a million dollars," she said. But now all she could do was say to herself, "Settle down, open the door, this is the way I am."

As it turns out, the Irish grandmother of seven with almost no acting experience was a perfect match for VW. She went on to win the lead role in a new campaign by Deutsch L.A. for one of the automaker's most important vehicle introductions in years, the Atlas SUV.

The seven-passenger vehicle is the largest vehicle VW has ever sold in the U.S. The campaign, in which Ms. Gallagher plays a widow fulfilling the wish of her husband by traveling the country, marks a pivot into new family-oriented marketing for a brand long associated with selling smaller cars to single people. VW, known for iconic campaigns like "Think Small," is now thinking bigger as it seeks to lure buyers into an expanded lineup of roomier vehicles.

The Atlas enters a market that is already crowded with SUVs and crossovers as automakers seek to quench the thirst of Americans who are moving away from cars and into larger vehicles. VW is making its appeal as it also tries to put its emissions scandal in the rearview mirror. It won't be easy, said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for AutoTrader. "It's a whole new part of the market for Volkswagen and they are small player," she said, noting that brands like Chevy and Ford have loyal followings for their established SUV offerings like Traverse and Explorer.

VW set the stage for its new approach last month with a fun-loving and slightly racy ad called "Luv Bug." Backed by Dean Martin's "The Birds and the Bees," it showed a couple having some fun in a VW Beetle. The couple's ever-expanding family then grows into sequentially larger VW models, ending with the Atlas.

While that spot went for laughs, the new ads -- which coincide with the Atlas's arrival at dealerships -- go for tears. The lead spot tells the story of an Irish-American widow played by Gallagher who fulfills the dying wish of her husband by taking the family, including grandkids, on a cross-country journey. They travel in the Atlas in changing weather and terrain from New York City through St. Louis, Arkansas, west Texas, Colorado, Arizona and Utah, ending in northern California, where the family spreads the grandmother's husband's ashes into the Pacific. The soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel's "America."

"Since this is a vehicle that is designed for American tastes we wanted to show it through the lens of America and really show America coast-to-coast," said Vinay Shahani, U.S. marketing VP for the VW brand. "Human stories told simply is our tonality."

Other shorter ads plug Atlas features by showing snippets of the family's journey, like one spot that shows them staring through the vehicle's panoramic sunroof at a flock of birds flying above a farm field. The ads use different versions of "America," including instrumentals.

A total of eight ads will get airplay on shows such as NBC's "The Voice" and during the NHL and NBA playoffs. VW has also made a significant cinema buy for a 90-second version of the ad (at top). Shahani declined to reveal total spending behind the campaign other than to characterize it as "sizable."

How grandma fits into VW's new U.S.-centric approach

The Atlas, built at a VW assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., is the product of a new approach in which Volkswagen of America has gained more autonomy from VW's German headquarters. The name Atlas stands apart from foreign-sounding monikers of other VW vehicles, like the Tiguan compact SUV. The 2018 Tiguan, which goes on sale later this year, has been updated to be made longer as part of VW's approach to better appeal to U.S. consumers. VW is seeking to lure owners of other brands to the Atlas and Tiguan by offering a six-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty that is lengthier than most warranties in the industry.

"We won't be able to effectively achieve the scale that we need to achieve simply by converting existing VW owners, we have to appeal to a broader audience," Shahani said. He also acknowledged that the warranty is partly a move to restore consumer confidence in the brand in the wake of the emissions scandal that erupted in late 2015 when it was revealed that the automaker had used so-called defeat devices to evade exhaust emissions testing.

VW this year has shown signs of a comeback. Vehicle unit sales at VW of America -- which includes VW, Porsche and Audi -- were up 9.2% in the first three months of the year, according to data compiled by Automotive News. The VW brand was up 10.1%.

The importance of the Atlas launch is evident in the meticulousness with which the campaign was planned. Director Benito Montorio of production company MJZ skipped the usual L.A. casting calls and walked the streets of New York, New Jersey and Boston, visiting airports, churches and pubs in search of people to fill the roles of the Irish-American family he envisioned, said Heath Pochucha, Deutsch's group creative director for VW. He "basically filmed them and got to know them for hours at a time and then we'd look at these casting tapes," he said. "It was a really long arduous process."

Gallagher, who speaks with a heavy Irish accent, found out about the casting through a friend who had seen an announcement about it posted at an Irish cultural center in Boston, where she lives. She had never been in a TV commercial, or done much acting at all, unless you count the time she played a psychiatric nurse in a 2009 amature film called "Boston Psychiatric" that she said "never went anywhere." Her true passion is singing at Irish bars.

But she qualified for the ad in other ways, like the fact that she had owned five VWs in her life. One of them was a red VW bug she and her husband owned in the 1960s. He was a electrical workers union member and they traveled the country in the car as he took jobs working on power lines.

At her house on that snowy January day, her hair now dry, she showed pictures of her old VWs to the casting agents and spoke about her husband, who died at the age of 52. "The laughing was over. Now it was getting a little more serious, meaningful," she recalled. She even sang them a traditional Irish tune, "She Moved Through the Fair."

She got invited to a follow-up interview at a studio in Boston in front of Montorio. "There were other grandmothers in there," she said. "That was the competition." After a final try-out in New York, she got a call a couple days later and was told, "Marie, pack your bag like you are going going on a three-week vacation, you are going to be doing the Volkswagen commercial," she said. "I was totally overwhelmed."

During the 28-day shoot, she bonded with her fictional family as they filmed on location. They hung out in hotel rooms and ordered pizza together. The middle-aged mom and eldest daughter shown in the ad are mother and daughter in real life.

One day in a redwood forest in Northern California, the cast was kept waiting in a van as a driving rain kept them from shooting. "Being from Ireland, I was born in the rain," Gallagher said. "'Grandma is not sitting in this van, let me out,'" she recalled telling the crew, laughing. "It was pouring from the heavens and they are all saying, 'Grandma, get back in the car.'"

As the cast and crew traveled from shoot to shoot, she relived memories of her spouse. In the ad, she is shown looking at black-and-white photo of a couple. It's a real shot of Gallagher and her husband.

When the shoot took them to Arizona, they drove through Phoenix and "I saw exactly the powerlines that he built, the big steel towers that you see going through the desert," said Gallagher, whose real-life family spent time in the city many years ago. "I never thought I'd see this again."

She is back in Boston now. A couple weeks ago, she finally retired from her part-time job doing administrative work for a construction company. She is toying with the idea of ramping up her acting career and sent in paperwork to join the Screen Actors Guild. Recently she shot a scene as an extra in the forthcoming Will Ferrell movie, "Daddy's Home 2."

But most of the time you'll find her in a Boston bar, belting out Irish tunes to people half her age, and then some. "They just let me out of the home now," she usually tells the crowds, she recalled, laughing. "So I just have two songs tonight, and then I'm leaving."

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