In the months and years following its 2015 global diesel emissions scandal, Volkwagen largely avoided alluding to the crisis in its U.S. advertising, outside of a smattering of targeted print and online ads. But in a new TV ad airing during tonight’s NBA Finals, the automaker tackles the issue head-on, while spinning the crisis as the impetus for its aggressive move into electric vehicles.
The ad, 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. The agency also 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.”
The language foreshadows Volkswagen of America’s oncoming EV onslaught, which includes a line of vehicles under the new I.D. subrand. 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 2012, 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.
The brand’s sales have recovered, 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.
By mentioning the scandal now in a new ad, the brand risks reminding buyers about an issue that many probably had forgotten about. But VW execs seem to have calculated that they need to own up to their mistakes 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.”
With the new marketing push, VW is digging into its past by reimagining classic ads 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, with copy that alludes to the scandal by stating, “even the sourest situation can be turned into something sweet.”