2007 Creativity Award Winner: Volkswagen "Safe Happens" Campaign

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By far the most jarring television campaign to hit American airwaves last year was Crispin, Porter + Bogusky's "Safe Happens" for Volkswagen's Jetta. In "Like" and "Movie" Jetta passengers are jolted out of mundane conversations by full-speed car crashes, slamming into a pickup reversing out of a driveway and getting T-boned in an intersection, respectively. After the airbags go off and the metal stops screeching, the spots cut to a shot of the passengers, breathless, standing around their wrecked auto, where one mutters "Holy..." Then—the product shot, with the super "Safe Happens," but the product is the busted-up Jetta and part of the sale is the power of the car to keep its human contents intact. While we're sure J.G. Ballard loved the spots, many found the realistic portrayals of accidents frightening. Volkswagen, however, reported a 17% sales increase in the Jetta line, so much so the agency used the same theme several months later for the Passat. In "Critique," the year's most meta spot, two women chew on the pros and cons of the commercials' realism—dialogue written by Crispin as its idea of what customers said about the earlier Jetta work—before falling victim to a runaway SUV.

Q&A with Crispin Porter + Bogusky CCO Alex Bogusky

To what extent did the "Safe Happens" campaign change the dialogue of car advertising?

Alex Bogusky: One of the things that we like to do is find places for brands to participate in bigger cultural conversations, but you kind of have to look at how that conversation is going to play out before you do that. In the case of something like "Safe Happens," there are a lot of flaws in the existing system of advertising automobile safety through crash test dummies and things falling off of cars and people avoiding it, because there's a lot of untruth to that. And Volkswagen's always been an alternative and a very truthful brand. They look for different ways to reach people and they make vehicles that are an alternative to the mainstream, and when we put all of that together, we thought there was a way to do a more honest depiction of how safety takes place.

Yeah, honest on a whole new level.

Bogusky: It's really dramatic and it's really compelling, because at the same time you're looking at advertising content having to compete with all content. You don't compete with commercials anymore. You compete with all content that's available to people in their time, and I think you've got to make content that's as compelling. Culturally, I think people are getting used to that. We were really careful about where those spots went on the air, they went on 24, they went on CSI:Miami—if you've ever seen those shows you know they are very dramatic and realistic portrayals of serious violence. If a "Safe Happens" commercial came on, we know that you were just watching someone was get their face cut off in a lab somewhere. ["Safe Happens"] wasn't in a place where that wasn't the kind of drama you were used to.

Did you ever think you were going too far?

Bogusky: It's a 100% honest portrayal of what happens. Every part of the accident was choreographed and everything in the vehicle operated exactly how it was advertised to operate. There weren't special effects or anything. If anything, we went further and put red marks and some cuts that you might get if you were in an accident, but the stunt people came out totally unscathed. It's been dramatic; it was dramatic for sales of Jetta, for Volkswagen's ownership of safety. Before you do it you've got to have faith that that's the way the conversation's going to play out.

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