By on May 23, 2011

This new Volkswagen ad is the first global thrust of the firm’s latest ad campaign, which centers around the concept of environmental friendliness, and the tagline “Think Blue.” The ad is nothing special in itself, other than being somewhat hypnotic in its cross-cultural depiction of changing environmental consciousness, but the blue-is-the-new-green campaign as a whole is more than a little confusing for a number of reasons.

As we explained nearly two years ago in a piece titled “Blue Is The New Green Is The New Bullshit,” the blue-as-green thing is both based on absurd marketing assumptions (“The color blue is associated with freshness, dynamism and lightness,” to quote VW’s own deep thinkers) and is being relentlessly used by trend-chasing auto marketers from every corner of the industry. VW already ha “BlueMotion,” while both VW and Audi use “AdBlue” for diesel exhaust treatment. Mercedes calls its similar clean-diesel system “Bluetec.” Bluetec Toyota uses blue prominently for its Prius badging and branding. Hyundai brands its low-C02 European models with the “BlueDrive” tag.

And those are just the “new green” automotive uses for “blue marketing.” And while you’re surviving the “blue-is-the-new-green” onslaught, consider that the many other automotive (and other) uses of “Blue” or even “ThinkBlue” confuse blue’s alleged ecological associations. For example, Fiat brands its in-car entertainment and connectivity system “Blue and Me.” The Dodgers have long had a sign above their stadium urging fans to “Think Blue.” The website sells office supplies. The city of San Diego brands its Emmy Award-winning stormwater runoff awareness PSAs with the “TinkBlue” line. In short, VW’s ThinkBlue campaign manages to be both overly self-aware (by creating a meaningless distinction between “blue” and “green”) and totally un-self-aware (by using an over-used tagline). As longtime commenter psarhinjian noted back in the Summer of 2009

Marketing people have a tendency, if they’re very bad at what they do, to both overthink and underthink at the same time.

This is one of those situations.

Meanwhile, this would be bad enough if Automotive News [sub] weren’t hailing the ThinkBlue campaign as a modern-day iteration of its famous “Think Small” Beetle ads, noting

Volkswagen is trying to recreate the magic of its 1960s marketing of the Beetle by bringing its “Think Blue.” marketing campaign to the United States to promote eco-friendly driving and green initiatives… “Think Blue.” harkens back to the brand’s “Think Small” slogan of the `60s used to pitch the VW Beetle.

Since both taglines begin with the word “think,” it’s easy to see why AN made the connection, but the similarities end there. When you tell the consumer to “think small” in an automotive ad, there’s no mistaking the intent. Within the automotive context, “small” means something in a way that “blue” doesn’t. This one-word difference is the difference between an effective, easily-communicated message, and a hot marketing mess. But the differences don’t end there…

Just as “Think Small” communicated a coherent idea, it also communicated a powerful, forward-looking idea. In short, VW recognized its shockingly unique position within the marketplace and exploited it. In sharp contrast, the “Think Blue” campaign is satisfied with a collection of well-worn environmental cliches that have little or no bearing on the automotive market. Yes, saving water is good… but why does it make me want to buy a Jetta?

Moreover, when the ad does cross over into the substance of the environmental impacts of automobiles, it remains so committed to its environmentalist message that it actively discourages the use, celebration and purchasing of automobiles, whether VW branded or not. Carpooling and choosing to ride a bicycle are green but not only don’t make me want to buy a Jetta, they make me want to reconsider whether I really need a car in the first place. At this point, the ad becomes extremely forward-looking for a car ad… but to its own detriment.

We’ll wait to see the full suite of US-market VW ads before we pass final judgement on this campaign’s chances for success here in the US, but the initial impressions aren’t promising. The problem with the whole approach is encapsulated in the following quote in AN’s writeup

Think Blue.’ bears witness to our holistic understanding of sustainability,” said Jonathan Browning, CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America. “On the one hand, the new Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga demonstrates just how eco-friendly and resource saving automobile production can be today. And on the other, we are seeking to intensify our dialog with art and society on key issues of the future through our cooperation with MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art]

Quite the opposite from its plucky, renegade positioning of the “Think Small” era, VW is running the kind of broad-based, feel-good ad campaign that might be effective if its products had the reputation of a Honda or Toyota. TO achieve its hugely ambitious goal of selling a million vehicles in the US market by 2018, VW needs to change perceptions not of its commitment to “a holistic understanding of sustainability” but of its products, dealers, and consumer responsiveness. These may not be the sexiest “understandings” to discuss in an ad campaign, but they’re what turnarounds are actually built on. And, unlike “Think Blue” they actually pass a meaningful message about what Volkswagen actually offers consumers.

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12 Comments on “Truth Versus Advertising: Even Volkswagen Gets The Blues...”

  • avatar
    Wagon Of Fury

    Perhaps this campaign is a meta-consciousness-reflection on all the walking or taking the bus you’ll be doing while your VAG auto is being repaired at the dealer for myriad problems ?

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Maybe VW should consider a twist on another of their old campaigns:
    Competent Marketers Wanted

  • avatar

    A meaningful message about what Volkswagen actually offers consumers is a quaint idea. But not the kind of thing that will win any of the creative types working on the VW account any big shiny industry awards (or get noticed by TTAC).
    Another enduring problem as the Think Small commercial you included in your story shows, Bernbach already did what you suggest and did it in a brillant and iconic way nearly 50 years ago. Since then, VW advertising has relentlessly sought to achieve that level of relevance and creativity in their advertising but has not succeeded. I think that VW simultaneously emboldens and terrifies advertising agencies who work on it in America. They are always in the considerable shadow of those who created Think Small. Anyway, thanks for sharing the current work, it truly is throughly and spectacularly awful on so many levels, as you insightfully pointed out.

  • avatar

    The ad is tediously long that I didn’t bother finishing it. Stupid VW. Why copy Merc’s bluetec thing?

  • avatar

    Is it just me, or does most “advertising” in this day and age utterly fail in achieving its mission (i.e., making me want to buy the product)?

    Whenever I see older ads, I’m always impressed with how clever, powerful, and effective they seem to be. WTF happened over the years?

  • avatar

    Strange thing.
    In German “blue” = “blau” = “drunken”, as in “Heute blau, morgen blau und übermorgen wieder” (with awe-inspiring video at VW should hire this guy.

    • 0 avatar

      So you mean when Die Prinzen sang:
      “Nein ich hab’s blau angestricken
      Vom Sattel bis zum Schlau
      Und ich find das aeusserst passend
      Denn blau bin ich manchmal auch”
      they weren’t singing about being sad? The things my German teacher didn’t teach me….

  • avatar

    Blue’s been the new green for a while now (2008?). I think it started with Synergy Drive. And now has migrated to Mercedes diesels (BlueSTUFF)

    I like Think Red better.

  • avatar

    Blue signals environmentally friendly but still usable. Green says hardcore, which means no car as it uses oil.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, Blue in connection with Diesel makes me think of smelly blue smoke.

      did anyone else watching the beginning of that ad expect it to break out into a “I’m Blue, dabba dee dabba doo, I’m Blue…”

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