VW's "Max" Ads Miss the Mark
You can argue who makes the best car in any given segment or genre ‘til you’re blue in the face. As for who has the best auto ads, there isn’t much debate: Volkswagen. Once again, the Boys from Wolfsburg have commissioned another Clio candidate. This time ‘round, it’s a talking (if ironically immobile) Bug named Max, starring as a talk show host. [Max ad not shown here; above is a vintage VW ad] The new ad, devised by Miami’s Crispin Porter + Bogusky agency, sums-up the automaker’s gestalt even better than “de-pimp my ride” and “Fast"– and not in a good way.
The first thing that stands out about the new ad: the fact that the host is a Beetle. Roots, rock, reggae be damned. At the risk of stating the obvious, the Beetle isn’t even made anymore. Not here. Not Mexico. Nowhere. CP+G know what they’re doing though; in her more lucid moments, even Lindsay Lohan recognizes that old thing. The Bug’s iconic shape is an instant attention-getter.
Yes, but, to what end? Why would VW want to remind its U.S. customers of a car whose looks, personality and market positioning better suit American car buyers than anything VW offers them today? Lest we forget, there’s a NEW Beetle out there, somewhere. What’s old is new and what’s new doesn’t count? Strange logic.
Anyway, if you think about it, despite the backup band, Max really isn’t really a talk show host. On the subconscious level, Max is a therapist. You know, one-on-one chat. German accent. Piercing questions. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar– and sometimes it isn’t.
The funny thing is, if anyone should be “on the couch,” it’s the Beetle. Here ist ein volks wagen designed by a budding sports car maker (who ended-up building tanks and ass-engined hedge explorers) at the request of a failed artist who never learned to drive or met a country he didn’t want to invade.
Contemplating VW’s gleaming representation of past glory, the new ad raises enough uncomfortable questions to keep Dr. Phil busy for, oh, two episodes or so. For starters, how does Max feel about the fact that his children and grandchildren have lost their way? With some notable exceptions (e.g. the European Golf), grandpa’s progeny have misplaced and/or abandoned their ancestor’s world-beating strengths (not to say polluted their genetic advantage): reliability and frugality.
Nowhere is this more true than in the U.S. For much of the 1960s, the VW Beetle WAS the American import market. None of the Bug variants were fast. Few were pretty. Their handling would have been a scandal (if such things had been scandalous) and they had ergonomic “issues.” (One ad featured a snowplow driver driving his beetle to work; off-camera, he’d lit himself on fire to keep warm.) But Beetles were cheap to buy and even cheaper to keep running.
And then Toyota and Datsun proved they could build appliances every bit as well using engineering that wasn’t 25 years old. Cute couldn’t keep the Beetle afloat forever (so to speak). The Bug’s children were in and out of rehab for years, guzzling gas, lost, never really finding a purpose in life.
Dr. Phil would also ask Max how he feels about his parent’s move stateside. While Max might give Mama props for being the first U.S. transplant, the [not a real] Doctor would confront him with the fact that the relocation was an unmitigated disaster. In fact, a discussion of the quality of the resulting products might be better suited for the Jerry Springer show; at the risk of offending the good people of Pennsylvania, we’re talking total trailer trash.
Rabbit production at the Westmoreland factory was so god damn awful– and expensive– that the resulting products single-handedly destroyed VW’s U.S. reputation. Mama? She eventually fled for Brazil. So, Max, how does THAT make you feel?
Given the Bug’s world domination, getting Max out of denial is hardly a foregone conclusion. But we could arm Phil with some stats. VW sells 200k cars per year stateside. They’re now aiming to sell 1m. How? By reintroducing the Phaeton? Isn’t it time Max strolled into the boardroom, stare his inheritors straight in the eye and, Mommie Dearest-style, said “Don’t fuck with me fellas”?
Clearly, VW’s not-so-mad Max ad campaign is a huge mistake. It reminds people of what VW should be, but isn't. Other than making a car that doesn’t break and providing dealerships that don’t piss on customers from a great height, the ad highlights the fact that VW still doesn’t know where/what they want to be in the US market.
Until Volkswagen returns to the characteristics that made it great in the first place, until they get reality squared away with their image, they will continue to fail in America. It’s one thing to celebrate the past. It’s another to do so while ignoring its lessons.
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