VW owns up to emissions scandal in remakes of iconic 'Lemon' and 'Think Small' ads

Brand also debuts new spot to air tonight during NBA finals, in first work from Johannes Leonardo

Published On
Jun 05, 2019

Editor's Pick

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 as well as in remakes of its iconic “Lemon” and “Think Small” ads. The campaign 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 campaign's message.

It's the first work for VW by its new U.S. agency Johannes Leonardo and marks a significant change in tone from the more lighthearted ads created under its previous shop, Deutsch

The TV spot, called “Hello Light,” is backed by the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence.” Directed by Daniel Wolfe of Somesuch, 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.

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 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.”

He 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 ads from the 1960s by Doyle Dane Bernbach that took an anti-establishment approach and deployed iconic lines like "Lemon" and "Think Small." 

One of the new print ads (below) 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.

Read the full story on VW's EV marketing strategy here

VW Lemonade

VW Drive Bigger


Jun 05, 2019
Client :
Scott Keogh
SVP Marketing :
Jim Zabel
Senior Director Strategy & Comms :
Greg Tebbutt
Director Brand & Marketing Comms :
Jennifer Clayton
Manager Advertising :
Chanel Barresi
Senior Specialist Brand Advertising :
Annabel Lyon
Specialist Brand Advertising :
Ladan Rafei
Agency :
Johannes Leonardo
Chief Creative Officer :
Jan Jacobs
Chief Creative Officer :
Leo Premutico
Creative Director :
Jono Flannery
Creative Director :
Paul Gregson
Design Director :
Charles Watlington
Copywriter :
Gautier Fage
Art Director :
Harry Neville-Towe
Head of Integrated Production :
Dana May
Group Executive Producer :
Benton Roman
Producer :
Adam Perloff
Production Assistant :
Cary Luecke
Assistant Editor :
Justin Leyba
Integrated Producer :
Treviana DelMastro
President :
Bryan Yasko
Head of Account Management :
Emily Wilcox
Business Lead :
Ben Muldrew
Account Director :
Vincent Scicchitano
Account Director :
Marci Axelrad
Management Supervisor :
Mal Gretz
Account Supervisor :
Kaki Pope
Account Executive :
Stephen Vocaturo
Head of Strategy :
Mark Aronson
Group Strategy Director :
Mary Bakarich
Head of Communications Strategy :
Meg Piro
Senior Business Affairs Manager :
Kacey Kelley
Film Production Company :
Director :
Daniel Wolfe
Director of Photography :
Robbie Ryan
Production Designer :
Chad Keith
Co-Founder :
Tim Nash
Co-Founder :
Sally Campbell
Executive Producer :
Nicky Barnes
Line Producer :
Saul Germaine
Local Production Service Company :
Radioaktive Films
Editorial :
Cosmo Street
Editorial :
Trim Editorial
Editor :
Tom Lindsay
Assistant Editor :
Dave Davis
Assistant Editor :
Alex Morales
Assistant Editor :
Taylor Morano
Assistant Editor :
Joshua Berger
Visual Effects :
VFX Supervisor :
Iwan Zwarts
VFX Executive Producer :
Charlotte Arnold
VFW Producer :
Bindy St. Leger
2D Compositing Lead :
Jamie Scott
Compositor :
Nick Tanner
Compositor :
Daniel Morris
Compositor :
Jacob Coy
Compositor :
Margolit Steiner
Compositor :
Chris Memoli
CG Artist :
Patrick McAvena
CG Artist :
Tom Bussell
CG Artist :
Vitaly Burov
3D Scanning :
Milos Lukac
Color Grade :
Colorist :
Simon Bourne
Sound Design :
Q Department
Audio Finishing :
Wave Studios
Mix & Additional Sound Editing :
Aaron Reynolds
Music Supervision :
Groove Guild
Music Supervisor :
Al Risi

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