By on June 5, 2019

Corporate missteps requiring an apology — an increasingly common phenomenon in our current outraged era — usually follow a well-worn path. The CEO will issue a statement to the media and public apologizing for dastardly malfeasance and skullduggery (or offending a Twitter user), following it up with a statement posted to the company’s webpage and social media accounts. There will be appeals for forgiveness, perhaps tearful ones, at tense shareholder meetings — especially if the company is Japanese.

Following that, a burst of newfound goodwill appears to repair a tarnished brand.

But what if serious misdeeds, even those resulting in arrests and billions of dollars in fines, could be used to market a new product? Volkswagen went there.

In a new commercial, the German automaker takes its not-so-clean diesel scandal and makes it the centerpiece, rather than the thing we must not speak of.

Titled “Hello Light,” the spot opens with the opening of a distant door, which sends a narrow shaft of light into a cavernous, darkened interior space. A lone man enters the room as we listen to sound bites from VW diesel scandal media reports. Sitting down, dejected, he picks up a pencil and begins scribbling.

Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence begins playing.

Our protagonist, a stand-in for the company itself, soon finds himself inspired, immersed in a new quest. He toils late into the night at his desk, pencil flying across the sheet of paper. Soon, seeks out an old Microbus blueprint. The computer screen glows as our designer refines his vision into a three-dimensional concept, one he shares with coworkers. Then, in a darkened factory, we see a shower of sparks — the designer’s vision is being made a reality. The shadowy skeleton of an unfinished vehicle body is seen, and we recognize the bus-like shape.

As the song swells, from the inky blackness shines an LED-ringed headlamp, VW logo glistening nearby, before the company’s I.D. Buzz microbus concept rolls out of the gloom, headed straight for the viewer.

“In the darkness, we found the light,” a message reads, before VW welcomes us to “a new era of electric driving.”

It’s a bold move for a company that suffered over $30 billion in penalties, lost its VW and Audi CEOs, and was forced to recall or buy back millions of vehicles on both sides of the Atlantic after rigged engines spewed illegal levels of smog-causing pollution for years.

Imagine if Ford acknowledged the infamous Pinto Memo in an ad for the new 1981 Escort, or if GM played up the rusty, overheating Vega when introducing the new Cavalier. Imagine if a somersaulting Corvair was the main attraction in a commercial for the new Vega.

VW wants to put the diesel scandal in its past. It’s had a come-to-Jesus moment, the ad tells viewers, and here are the results of that epiphany — the clean, green MEB-platform vehicles due to pour forth from Europe (and eventually Tennessee) in the coming years.

Apparently, VW is the George Wallace of brands.

Cynical? Inspired? You make the call.

[Images: Volkswagen/YouTube]

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31 Comments on “Adventures in Marketing: Volkswagen Airs Its Dirty Laundry...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    “the infamous Pinto Memo”

    You’re perpetuating a well-worn myth. That document was the consequence of a government-required study of safety tradeoffs. Every company performs such studies, and it’s why cars and airline tickets remain affordable, due to something called “acceptable risk”.

    In the Ford and GM examples cited, no laws were broken. There is no equivalence to VW’s criminal behavior.

    • 0 avatar

      You have a well-taken point…if you can somehow prove that people got the Joan of Arc treatment because their VW-made TDIs emitted too much pollution.

    • 0 avatar

      I thought the Pinto Memo was a little-remembered option package marketed to the working woman in the 1970s? A true “secretary’s car”, complete with mobile phone and fold-out desk.

      (The preceding was “alternate history” and didn’t really happen.)

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    Is it me ? Or am I the only one who’s a bit tired of rehashing their mistake. They screwed up , got caught and paid a big A fine. Big corporations do this all the time.Key phrase NOBODY DIED. It’s not like a 15cent saving on an ignition switch.
    VW employs alot of people globally and makes some pretty cool cars. One could argue that our neighbors to the south owe them for their industrial resurgence for being the first to build factories down there
    Me thinks automobiledom is better with a VAG than without

    • 0 avatar


    • 0 avatar

      Saying “big corporations do this all the time” doesn’t mean we as consumers have to forgive them. Giant corporations have a long history of screwing over the general public either directly (unsafe products) or indirectly (shipping jobs overseas and not lowering prices). When the crime in question breaks laws, yes, the corporations get fined. And wouldn’t you know, no matter what they’ve done, no matter how many lives are affected and/or lost, they basically just have to say “I’m sowwy”, pay that “big fine” you mentioned, and guess what — in the long run, they all bounce back. So they really have no reason not to engage in any unethical or immoral practice, because once corporations reach a certain size, they’re bulletproof. Why people are complacent with that sort of thing, I’ll never understand.

      By the way, plenty of Americans LOVE to stick up for those corporations in the name of ~freedom~. The multi-billionaires of the world have really done an excellent job getting working-class shlubs to defend the interests of those far wealthier than they’ll ever be.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        @quaquaqua; Exactly. Ask those who are victims of the pharmaceutical industry. Corporations pursue profit. Full stop. Period. That is why government oversight, as shoddy as it often is, is still required. Even if it only makes an example of a few, organizations.

        • 0 avatar

          Correct, but getting back to cimarron’s point, are we better off with or without pharmaceutical companies? Clearly, we are.

          • 0 avatar

            FreedMike writes: “are we better off with or without pharmaceutical companies? Clearly, we are.”

            And when you come to a fork in the road, take it.

          • 0 avatar

            Depends who you ask. Someone who’s life was saved by a miracle drug? Obviously. Someone with a new opiate addiction catalyzed by an unnecessary painkiller prescription? Not so sure.

            Unchecked, corporations will stop at nothing for profit… even bucking public safety or delivering value to customers. So it’s hardly cut and dry.

          • 0 avatar

            Agreed in part, sporty…yes, it’s wrong to “push” narcotics if you’re a pharmaceutical company, but there are millions of people who have a legitimate need for the medication.

            It’s a very complex problem.

    • 0 avatar

      You say we should forgive big corporations, but then you state this: “It’s not like a 15cent saving on an ignition switch.”

      Ignition switches rotate. People put crazy amounts of weight on their keychain created enough torque for the ignition switch to rotate. You want us to forgive VW for purposefully implementing cheat software and blaming engineers once caught, but you’re not willing to forgive GM for obeying the laws of physics.

      • 0 avatar

        Oh come on. Everybody’s ignition switch rotates and heavy key rings are hardly a GM specific phenomenon. Yet somehow only GM found a way to kill people with them.

    • 0 avatar

      People have died though. Car emissions are a health threat, which is part of why they are regulated.

      • 0 avatar

        I see this dragged out routinely – yet I’ve never heard of a single case of “death by car emissions” unless it was suicide. This by and large, in Western countries, is a non-issue. Maybe in China or other places with crap for emissions regulations it might cause a few untimely deaths – but western standards are so outright insanely pedandic that your home-cooked-meal can raise the NOX levels in your kitchen to levels many times greater than what’s allowed out the back of your car. And we’ve been exposed to that kind of “emissions” for thousands of years without any known issues.

        And what’s really hilarious, NOX and CO2 aren’t really that toxic to us humans unless the concentrations are just astronomical so that they interfere with our getting oxygen. But when someone commits suicide by exhaust, its the CO that gets them. Not the NOX or CO2. They don’t regulate CO to any great degree either – and they don’t need to, it can’t exist in the environment for very long, it wants to become CO2.

        It’s just governments run amok because these agencies have long since accomplished their goal of cleaning up our air, and now, like a runnaway robot, they are over doing it and making everything expensive and difficult.

        • 0 avatar
          Felix Hoenikker

          Are you serious about NOx being non toxic? Both NO and NO2 commonly referred to as NOx are very corrosive gases that will severely damage your respiratory system. Depending on exposure time in high enough concentrations (hundreds of ppm) can irreversibly damage lung tissue. Even relatively low concentrations (50 ppm) over a long period will damage you lungs You need to study a little toxicology before you spout this type of fake news.
          You are correct that CO2 is not very toxic. It takes about 4% to affect the gas balance in a human’s blood. However, it is a pollutant with respect to trapping heat in the atmosphere. If you doubt that, take the next ship to Venus and experience the delights of high CO2 concentrations and global warming.

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    I’m both inspired, and cynical.

  • avatar

    This has got to be better than their lame “Plug Into The Present” electric car commercial with the competing virtual signalling drivers in the hooptie Subaru and the Chevy Bolt.

  • avatar

    I’ve found that when I f**k up, it’s best to just go ahead and say so, and never f**k up the same way again.

    That last part is the trick, though. Time will tell if is the last time VW screws this badly with its’ customers’ trust. If it is, then it has “found the light.” If not, this is more marketing BS.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. When I mess up, I come clean right away. It’s always the best route.

      VW [purposefully] messed up and spent a lot of time trying to convince us they didn’t. It’s the later part that makes me mistrust them.

      Oh, but they eventually made some lame commercial, using an misplaced classic song? Well, I guess they’re OK. /s

  • avatar

    Thats all good but they did not really kill people, not outright. But how about Holocaust? When VW will publicly apologize for that? And how about using slave labor during WWII?

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Personally, I’m tired of apologies – political, corporate, and national. They don’t really make anything right.

      The most sincere apology is to look the aggrieved person in the eye when the words are spoken, then put in long-term efforts to make things right, and without public ballyhoo.

      Apologies aren’t effective without forgiveness.
      Repeat apologies mean that forgiveness hasn’t occurred.
      Apologies for the faults of past generations are worthless.

    • 0 avatar

      > But how about Holocaust? When VW will publicly apologize for that? And how about using slave labor during WWII?

      Except that postwar Volkswagen was an entirely different company. The Americans captured the factory near the end of the war and turned it over to the British Army (you know, the folks that along with their Allies *defeated* Nazi Germany) with the intent to strip out and ship the factory tooling to the UK. This didn’t happen only because none of the British car manufacturers wanted it, thinking the Beetle was too primitive to sell. So instead production resumed in Germany, with the first year’s output going to the British military. Civilian production mostly didn’t start until 1947. VW wound up being handed over in 1949 to a trust run by the new West German federal government and the state of Saxony.

    • 0 avatar

      “But how about Holocaust? When VW will publicly apologize for that? And how about using slave labor during WWII?”
      I suppose they will apologize about the same time Ford and GM will apologize for supplying the backbone of the German Army transportation system through vehicles and parts that got built at their plants in Germany under the same conditions during the same period of time.

    • 0 avatar

      The Nazi Party went out of business a long time ago.

      FreedMike, Jewish Audi owner.

      (Seriously, by this logic, Japan should never buy anything from Boeing – after all, Boeing planes were used to fire-bomb and nuke their cities into smoking piles of rubble.)

  • avatar

    Deeds speak.
    So prove it VW.

  • avatar

    They don’t need double talk, they need Bobloblaw

  • avatar

    I’m still not convinced that the BEV revolution will come. VWAG is staking its rebrand on tech w/no supply chain. The e-Tron quattro is already delayed due to battery supply issues.

    What they should have done is go all in on hybrids. Frustratingly what little hybridization they’re doing is inefficient and poorly implemented. Whole thing is a huge mess.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, Toyota is now jumping into the BEV fray with ten vehicles and VW has a growing list of preorders for their BEV. EVs are really fantastic vehicles to drive. Once you’ve driven one, it’s hard to go back to a torque-lag plagued ICE. That quiet and smoothness is something that once you get used to it, you won’t go back.

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