Outside of a smattering of targeted print and online ads, Volkswagen has largely avoided alluding to its 2015 global diesel emissions scandal in U.S. advertising. But now, some four years later, the automaker is tackling the issue head-on in a new TV ad airing during tonight’s NBA Finals that spins the crisis into the impetus for its aggressive move into electric vehicles.
“Our biggest mistake has led to the biggest transformation in the company’s history,” Jim Zabel, VW of America’s senior VP of marketing, said in an interview discussing the ad’s message.
The spot, which is the first work for VW by its new U.S. agency Johannes Leonardo, marks a significant change in tone from the more lighthearted ads created under its previous shop, Deutsch. With the new work, Johannes Leonardo dug into VW’s countercultural past with new versions of the brand’s iconic “Lemon” and “Think Small” print ads. (More on that further on down.)
The TV spot, called “Hello Light,” is backed by the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence.” It begins with a flashback of news reports of the 2015 scandal, when VW admitted to installing “defeat devices” on vehicles in an alleged attempt to evade emissions testing. The crisis, which drew major headlines, tarnished the brand’s long-held pro-environment positioning, while resulting in billions of dollars in legal settlement costs.
The spot quickly transitions into portraying a designer sketching electric vehicle renderings in a dimly-lit room. He grows frustrated, then is inspired by taking a look at old drawings of VW’s classic Microbus. Then come modern-day vehicle manufacturing scenes followed by a glimpse of the planned I.D. Buzz, an electric version of the Microbus set to arrive in 2022. The ad ends with this: “In the darkness, we found the light. Introducing a new era of electric driving.”
Part of a larger campaign
The spot will get a limited run until June 19 before VW begins a new brand campaign called “Drive Something Bigger Than Yourself,” which is partly an allusion to the environmental benefits of electric vehicles.
Volkswagen of America’s oncoming EV onslaught includes a line of vehicles under the new I.D. sub-brand. Globally, the Volkswagen Group–which includes Audi and Porsche–plans to launch 70 new electric models in the next 10 years, accounting for 22 million battery-powered vehicles. Executives have touted the push for months in corporate presentations.
But the new ad marks the first time VW of America has used its mass-market advertising to connect the EV rebirth strategy to the emissions scandal, which marked one of the darkest chapters in the German brand’s U.S. history.
Up until now, the brand’s U.S. marketing team took a cautious approach, avoiding the kind of large-scale apology ads that other marketers, such as Uber and Wells Fargo, have recently used when faced with a brand crisis. In 2015, weeks after the scandal drew headlines, VW briefly ran newspaper ads declaring that "we're working to make things right," while plugging a customer goodwill program. But the brand never addressed the scandal in TV ads, where it ran its regular cycle of spots touting new model introductions.
Of late, the brand’s sales have been on an uptick in the U.S., spurred by new investment in SUVs. Total VW brand sales climbed 6 percent in the first five months of the year, according to data compiled by Automotive News.
But by mentioning the scandal now in a new ad, the brand risks reminding buyers about an issue that many probably had forgotten about. The ad also does not explicitly apologize for VW’s actions, which could risk angering some consumers.
Still, VW execs ave calculated that they need to mention the scandal again in a very public fashion to gain the credibility to move on to the EV drive. The electric push is underpinned by shades of the kind of environment-friendly positioning VW deployed when it was pushing diesel cars, whose so-called TDI engines became a centerpiece of ads touting “clean diesel”– a narrative that was undercut by the scandal.
Zabel concedes that the new ad will again remind the U.S. population of the scandal, but says, “without mentioning the past...we would never have the credibility or authenticity to move forward with the brand.” He adds: “Through the last three-and-a-half years or so we kind of operated as usual in the consumers eye. We kept a very consistent message in the marketplace but didn’t really have a powerful point-of-view as a brand.”
'Clearing the air'
Leo Premutico, co-founder and co-chief creative officer at Johannes Leonardo, says the ad is “very much about clearing the air with our customer. Because it’s really hard, difficult, to become a part of culture again if we are not reconnecting with our audience.”
Zabel declined to reveal how much VW paid to secure the rights of the Simon & Garfunkel song. Premutico says the song, and the mood it creates, is “inextricably linked” to the ad. He also noted that the tune, which came out in the early 1960s, “takes us back to that moment when Volkswagen was at its strongest.”
Such nostalgia also underpins new print ads by Johannes Leonardo that reimagine classic VW campaigns from the 1960s by Doyle Dane Bernbach that took an anti-establishment approach and deployed classic copy lines like "Lemon" and "Think Small."
One of the new print ads uses the phrase “Lemonade,” and a picture of the I.D. Buzz. Copy alludes to the scandal by stating, “even the sourest situation can be turned into something sweet.” Another print ad states, “After a bad buzz, here is a better one.”
The ads are slated to run in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.