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Volkswagen aims for feel-good redemption in new major ad campaign

Is an electric microbus and Simon & Garfunkel enough to make you forget about the emissions cheating scandal?

Volkswagen aims for feel-good redemption in new major ad campaign

Behind the blackness of a blank screen we hear audio of news reports around VW’s 2015 emissions scandal and the ensuing fallout: mistrust, dissatisfied customers, and billions in legal fees and regulatory fines. A switch goes off, the news reports stop. A single figure, a man lit by a lone lamp, sits in studied contemplation. Pencil at lips, hand at forehead, tired, thinking. The iconic first guitar plucks of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence” kick in. “Hello darkness, my old friend . . . .”

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The new ad is called “Hello Light” (get it?), part of an overall campaign called “Rebirth.” And by the looks of the lone, nameless VW employee in the spot–slaving away making designs, sketching and erasing, doing exhaustive research in a darkened, after-hours office–that rebirth involves an image of hard work and a purpose.

Here that purpose appears to be promoting sustainability via a new electric vehicle. As glimpsed in bursts throughout the ad, we see the electrified version of the brand’s classic microbus. Recall that it was first introduced as a concept car back in 2017, with a plan to roll out in 2022.

The ad’s purpose goes far beyond the particulars of this one concept car that’s still not for sale or preorder. VW wants to get back to being the cuddliest of car brands. The one with the little Darth Vader. The one with 60 years of iconic messaging that set VW apart as being friendly and self-deprecating. The tease of the bus connects the past with the desired present and future. That’s the VW you know, not the one that created software to scam emissions tests and then allegedly lied about it after being caught. Nothing particularly cuddly about that.

The tagline reads, “In the darkness, we found the light. Introducing a new era of electric driving.”

It’s tempting to get to the end of the spot here and conclude, “Oh, so now you care about the Earth?” But that’s a bit glib. While it’s unspoken here for now, the company has committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, with a 30% reduction in emissions by 2025, and is set to break ground on a new $800 million assembly plant expansion in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to build electric vehicles.

As corporate apology ads go, this one lands somewhere between Uber’s “I’m as upset about this as you are” approach and Facebook’s “Whaaa happen, bro?” strategy. The somber tone, the “in the darkness” bit, we’ve got all the trappings and window trim of an apology–without saying the actual words–and then it jumps right into the redemption part. Paying out a $14.7 billion settlement to resolve claims by owners from the diesel-cheating scandal (one of the biggest consumer class-action settlements ever in U.S. history) is just tough to shoehorn into this ad’s story.

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Unless maybe you go with “Cecilia” over “Sounds of Silence.”

The spot, created by agency Johannes Leonardo, is the first major piece of work since VW awarded WPP with its creative ad account last November, after nearly a decade with Deutsch. Deutsch’s last work for the brand was the rollout of the model year 2019 Jetta that eschewed somber reflection, earned or otherwise, for a hearty dose of standard auto ad silliness.

It’s a bit weird for VW to choose now as the time to address its ongoing legal problems and their effect on its brand. Sales have actually been growing, up by 5.4% in the U.S. in 2018, and the brand expects sales to grow by another 5% this year. In May, VW started accepting preorders on its ID.3 electric vehicle and claims it received 10,000 reservations in the first 24 hours and 20,000 in its first month. Even though this is not a car slated to go on sale in North America anytime soon, the buzz has had a halo effect for VW here as a potentially serious player in electric vehicles.

Perhaps like the many rejected sketches our lone worker crumpled and tossed in the trash, this ad is VW asking for a clean slate. A chance to prove it’s the friendly brand we all knew and loved, pre-2015. At the right angle, even a bear can look pretty damn cuddly, making it tough to see the claws under all that fur.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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