By on May 20, 2020

Sometimes a commercial runs afoul of government overseers for reasons only an uptight, power-hungry bureaucrat could understand. Recall the UK giving Ford a hard time for suggesting its Mustang could go fast — perhaps even being capable of exceeding the speed limit. Worse yet, Ford implied that a driver might like it.

Over in Germany, an Instagram ad for the new Mk8 Golf took things in a more unsettling direction. We’re courting controversy ourselves just mentioning the incident, knowing that very concerned parties monitor our material regularly for the purpose of expressing online outrage over imagined word crimes. However, this occurrence is real, and it’s clearly something Volkswagen wishes had never happened.

The ad, which quickly drew complaints about racist elements, has since been pulled, with Volkswagen brass issuing apologies for its content. If you’re curious, it exists in GIF form in this Financial Times piece.

Yes, that’s a giant white hand flicking a black man away from a parked Golf, thwarting his attempts to enter the car and eventually sending him back through the doorway of a cafe called “Petit Colon” (which Deutche Welle notes can be translated into “little settler”). If that loaded imagery wasn’t enough, the lettering that appears on the screen (“Der Neue Golf,” or The New Golf) does so haphazardly. The first letters to show up briefly spells, in an alphabet soup sort of way, the German version of the N-word.

Sometimes, there’s no there there when it comes to ad complaints. Here, there’s definitely some there there.

To use internet parlance, not a great look for an automaker that hosted four concentration camps and eight forced labor camps on the grounds of its massive Fallersleben assembly plant in wartime Germany. By war’s end, some 60 percent of the plant’s workforce was slave labor, consisting mainly of Jews, Soviet POWs, and Polish and Hungarian civilians. It’s a terrifyingly dark history the company has repeatedly apologized for.

And yet Volkswagen keeps finding itself in hot water — water it single-handedly placed on the stove top. The most recent collision with its Nazi past came last year when CEO Herbert Diess triumphantly declared “Ebit macht frei” (or, earnings before interest and taxes make you free) during an internal meeting. VW apologized for Diess’ decision to make partial use of the phrase that once greeted doomed masses at the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp (“Arbeit macht frei”).

This time around, the blunder didn’t come at a company meeting. It was viewed on peoples’ phones.

“We understand the public outrage at this. Because we’re horrified, too. This video is an insult to all achievements of the civil rights movement. It is an insult to every decent person,” wrote Juergen Stackmann, VW brand board member for sales and marketing, and Elke Heitmueller, head of diversity management, in a message posted to Twitter and LinkedIn.

“We at Volkswagen are aware of the historical origins and the guilt of our company during the Nazi regime. That is precisely why we resolutely oppose all forms of hatred, slander/propaganda and discrimination.”

You’d think a carmaker that once hosted concentration camps on its property would run its marketing materials past a few more people to prevent annual declarations of historical guilt that hurt its PR. Yes, you’d think that.

Of course, car companies outsource most of this stuff, which isn’t to say that company brass can’t review the final product. In a statement to Reuters, VW said is investigating how exactly the Instagram video came to be.

[Image: U.J. Alexander/Shutterstock]

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31 Comments on “Volkswagen Apologizes for Ad, Forced to Talk About Its Dark Past Yet Again...”

  • avatar

    Dag nabbit, I let my subscription to the Financial Times lapse so I can’t see it. Thanks for the link anyway.

    Sounds bad though even without seeing it. I seriously wonder sometimes how some companies get into trouble with some of these obviously objectionable ads. Nobody proofed this? No reasonable person in the company saw it in advance and thought…hmmmmmm?

    • 0 avatar

      Third paragraph in, I stopped cold, said to myself, this is written by Steph.
      I Go back to the title block.
      YEP. Nailed it.

      Convoluted wording, turning in upon itself and more twists. Taking 100 words to say what could have been done with 25.

      I had said I might. Now going forward, I will skip Steph articles. I cant take it.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s postulating Posky who think he knows all I have a hard time with sometimes and grandpa where’s my slippers Healey, never a hard critic of the press corps cars he’s fed. Willems shows signs of actual self-awareness and a certain sly wit I quite enjoy. Having read many of your responses since you turned up on the scene I’m not surprised at your reaction. I’ve changed my “name” four times over the years since 2006 when I started contributing here due to various Word Press challenges with logging in. I tend to categorize commenters, can’t help myself.

        Still, look at it this way, there’s other contributors to TTAC to read. Watered down as it is these days to a level not much above pap and inspired press rewrites, TTAC still is unique. The rest out there is complete mush what with C/D really trying hard to ruin itself recently. Their comment sytem has all but disappeared perhaps never to return.

      • 0 avatar
        Rich Fitzwell

        Edit ruthlessly

        EB White

  • avatar

    I sometimes have a hard time keeping up with things that are offensive to someone, but some things are really obvious. I am unable to see the gif because it’s behind a paywall, but judging by the description it would seem like, “Hey, this might offend someone so lets not do it”. It’s pretty simple and doesn’t take away from the content to use a white guy instead of a black guy with the white hand

    Good going VW, I don’t think you can afford to alienate any more customers

  • avatar

    Ouch. This is about as cringey as Chancellor Merkel’s unintentionally cringey comments in March comparing the COVID crisis with World War Two.

    Cringey as in did you reeeeeeeeally just say that??!!

  • avatar

    Why would you link to a paid website?

    I haven’t seen the ad, but by bringing this up as an issue, aren’t we helping to make racism an issue?
    I thought black people were just normal folks and could be treated the same as everyone else? So they can’t be pushed off in an ad now?
    What if it were a yellow (asian) hand flicking off a white guy, would that suggest that asian people are superior to white people?

    • 0 avatar

      Ok I’ve seen the ad (thanks Lou_BC). It’s a bad ad, not only because the concept is stupid (what’s the message here!?) but the way the hand treats the guy is dismissive and wrong. It shouldn’t be normalized to push people around no matter the skin color.

      And if it’s true that the letters briefly spell the N word in German then it’s offensive. A major faux pas for VW and it shows how little oversight they have on their marketing material. Speaks volumes about their ethics and processes.

      • 0 avatar
        Guy A

        I agree, if it had been a white hand pushing a white person away then there would have been complaints about a “lack of diversity” even though Germany is predominantly white. You just can’t win sometimes.

        • 0 avatar

          It’s simpler and more subtle than damned-if-you-do / damned-if-you-don’t.

          The reaction you get from racially charged speech comes down to the perceived intent of the speaker.

      • 0 avatar

        The letters definitely appear to spell a certain German word for a brief second. The word is….take our really despicable word, replace the I with an E and delete one G. That is either intentional or the worst sort of coincidence possible.

  • avatar

    It’s on the Al Jazeera site

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Not only Auschwitz, but I’ve also seen “Arbeit Macht Frei” in Dachau and Oranienburg.

    This is a very sensitive phrase. If I remember correctly, there have been several attempts to steal those signs, and the thieves have finally succeeded in Dachau.

    One would think that giant companies like VW would be able to afford to have a P.C. manager, to review any public ads or statements for these mishaps.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Maybe VW was testing this ad before running in South Carolina

  • avatar

    Since opening my own marketing agency I have learned that even very seasoned CMOS and Marketing VP put far too much trust in their agencies. I love that they trust us, but I’ve had more than one conversation with clients to explain to them that no, they do need to review everything and anything we create on their behalf before it goes out in the wild.

    Someone didn’t do their job – the agency will probably fire the intern or first-year employee that hit “submit” for the campaign when in reality the creative director should be walked out the door.

  • avatar

    How many more times does VW have to step in it before someone on the board scratches his or her head and asks the really hard questions. Questions like “Who tf is managing and leading this company?”

    VW seems to go from one FU to another despite changes in leadership.

  • avatar

    VW in its ads, Ford in its parade of recalls and failed launches, GM and its Cadillac coffee houses in Manhattan.
    Perhaps its a new ere, one in which these companies aren’t too big to fail.

  • avatar

    Is it THAT bad? I mean, if you’re just looking at it through a non-racial lens, you see one guy trying to keep another guy from looking at his Golf. Then again, I try very hard to not look at things through a racial lens. For me, that’s a good way to determine whether something is truly wrong. There’s enough truly racist crap going on that stuff like this doesn’t look like a hill I want to die on.

    Problem is, nobody seems to be able to look at *anything* through a non-racial lens these days. Proof? If it were a black guy trying to flick a white guy away, there would be outrage over that too.

    Having said that though, VW – yes, the same VW that went all in on Nazi World Conquest – exists in this climate and should have known better.

  • avatar

    What’s an advertiser to do when the rules say that different skin colours must be placed together in situations which are hilarious and memorable, yet bland and inoffensive?

    One strategy is to break the rules, and dominate the news cycle. It works for Donald Trump, and whether by design or by accident it also appears to be working for VW.

  • avatar

    If we can return to the question of the Tercel for a minute, back in the early 90s, my wife and I were forced to sell our two cars due to a move out of the country. I had a beautiful almost-new Nissan NX 2000, an amazing car for the time, and my wife had a 1984 Tercel with high mileage. We put ads for these two cars on Craiglist at the same time. No one called about my car but within four hours my wife had responses from 20+ people desperate to buy her car. I ended up taking a major bath on the Nissan to get rid of it, but she actually sold the Tercel for more than she was asking because two buyers were trying to outbid each other.

  • avatar

    I’m sure any day now this announcement will come out of Wolfsburg: The directors of the firm hired to continue the credits after the other people had been sacked, wish it to be known that they have just been sacked. The credits have been completed in an entirely different style at great expense and at the last minute.

  • avatar

    This is really bad. It’s bad because it is subtle and not blatant. The individuals who came up with this commercial probably think they are very clever. (The are very clever and very racist.) This commercial obviously flew under the radar of the people in charge of such things and who should made sure that it never saw the light of day.

    The photographic tricks using perspective to make the hand in the foreground appear to moving the objects in the background are clever and have been around for ages. I’ve often seen the technique used in student films made by aspiring cinematographers.

    If the commercial had only a single one of the elements mentioned, it probably would have gone unnoticed and un-commented on, but these clever people couldn’t stop with with just one thing, they had to keep piling on.

    The ad featured a black man being pushed around by a giant white hand, AND being pushed into the “Little Colonist” cafe, AND then to have the text light up in a way that momentarily spelled the German version of the “N”-word. It was beyond the pale.

    But hey, at least it made us momentarily forget about all of the quality-control issues that VW seems to be having with der neue Golf.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    There was a time when VW at least in North America was lauded for the quality of its ad campaigns.

    But then back then, VW’s were also viewed as being reliable vehicles.

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