Volkswagen is back with a new ad campaign. The 60-second spot, created by DDB Berlin, shows a red-haired toddler ageing through a period of 40 years in a gradually evolving set of VW cars that begins with a Beetle and ends with its latest 2016 model. The TV ad concludes with the message: ‘It’s more than just a car. It’s a lifelong companion.’ In its print ads, the message is even more direct: ‘It’s more than just a car. It’s keeping your promises.’
It’s a relatively unremarkable campaign which, at any other time since VW was founded, would have raised a smile but little else. But coming at the lowest point in VW’s corporate existence, it is incendiary.
It’s worth remembering four very sobering things about the VW ‘clean diesel’ scandal in the US before we move on. First, this was not corporate negligence but malfeasance on a massive scale. VW did not overlook something in the production of its so-called clean diesel engines; it deliberately cheated on its emissions data and engine design.
Second, the biggest cost of VW’s lies can be counted not in brand equity or in lost earnings, but in the potential loss of lives. Scientific analysis by academics from MIT and Harvard estimates that 59 people will die prematurely in the US from environmental pollution directly attributable to VW’s illegal emissions.
Third, despite much talk of resignations and restructuring, no one in the company has actually been charged or prosecuted.
Finally, VW’s diesel cars continue to operate across the UK and, as yet, not one of the 400,000 vehicles has been recalled and fixed. This will start in March, though VW currently maintains it did not breach any European regulations.
In summary, it would not be egregious for me to believe that VW, through its misrepresentations and misdeeds, could be responsible for the deaths of a significant number of people, and that it has not been held accountable thus far for any of this. And yet this company has opted for a new strapline that focuses on ‘keeping your promises’.
Am I losing my mind? How can a brand that barely six months ago admitted to one of the most deliberate acts of corporate wrongdoing in the history of capitalism now promote itself in Europe with a message of trust? How can it get away with a campaign about trust before it even begins to fix the problem created by its lies?
I can think of only two explanations.
First, VW has fallen for the oldest trick in the advertising book. An agency convinces the company’s marketers that the best way to handle an issue is to change the brand promise and then work on the other, less external issues, on a secondary basis. It is sometimes called ‘building brands from the outside-in’ or ‘aspirational positioning’. We do not reflect the current reality in our communications; we show how we want it to be and then work towards making this positive vision a reality.
It is also referred to as ‘bullshit marketing’. Proper positioning must pass the age-old ‘three Cs’ test. You make sure the proposition is what your customer wants, is what your company can deliver, and is better than or different from the competition. In VW’s case, it is clear why ‘keep your promises’ resonates with customers and why it offers significant competitive traction versus rival brands. But VW simply does not have the corporate legitimacy to claim this.
It does not keep its promises. It lets customers down.
The other explanation for all this is even more appalling. Perhaps customers don’t care. Perhaps they will watch VW’s new ad campaign, smile at the little baby becoming a man and blithely associate VW with truth, honesty and the intrinsic goodness of things. Like goldfish, they will blink, en masse, and then forget everything.
There is some evidence to support this thesis. Sales at VW are down, but only by 14% in the UK in January, suggesting that most consumers are as unconcerned with corporate reputation as they are with the probity of product claims. If that’s the case, then David Ogilvy was wrong. Utterly wrong. The consumer really is a moron.
If that’s true, a new golden era of advertising awaits. Never mind corporate reputations, product performance and good old fashioned reality – it’s open season on the truth! If VW can be trustworthy, the possibilities for other brands are enormous. Levi’s is cool, BlackBerry is the market leader, cigarettes are good for you, Jeremy Corbyn is thoroughly electable and I, dear reader, am a patient and decent human being with an enduring faith in the power of brands to make the world a better place.
This article first appeared in Marketing Week