Every advertiser faces a basic choice at the outset of a campaign: come up with unique, relatable imagery for ads, or riff on an established cultural meme. Volkswagen went the latter route with its “Darth Vader” Super Bowl ad, achieving huge success: it was the most popular auto-related ad of the Super Bowl, and the Youtube version has received over 40 million views. The only problem with appropriating such popular imagery: you don’t enjoy unique rights to it, meaning you can be easily hoisted by your own petard. Which is exactly what’s happened here to Volkswagen. Greenpeace is angry that VW opposed a bid to bump the EU’s 2020 emissions goal from the agreed-upon 20% to 30% of 1990 levels (even though C02 emissions improved 3.7% last year and 5.1% in 2009, and average emissions are on track to hit the 130g/km 2015 goal ahead of schedule). As a result, they’ve turned VW’s hugely popular “Darth Vader” ad on its head, identifying the giant automaker with the evil Lord Vader, and encouraging fans to “join the rebellion.”
It is the goal of the Volkswagen Group to be the industry leader in innovation and in the environmental performance of the company and its products… The Volkswagen Group is spearheading technology among the world’s volume carmakers.
So, is the charge fair? According to data obtained by The Independent, VW’s average emissions were the worst of major manufacturers in the European market (as of 2009). That certainly doesn’t help VW’s new image issue, although it’s not clear where popular sentiment falls on this specific debate, namely whether to cut 2020 average emissions by 20% of 1990 levels or 30%. Still, the appropriation of VW’s appropriated imagery certainly hits the automaker where it hurts, especially in the US where VW has a smaller lineup and a better reputation for energy efficiency. Perhaps next time VW’s advertisers will look to a more original concept for its next big global ad…