VW dips into the Olympic athlete pool again as it promotes ‘the most powerful GTI of all time’

Volkswagen has released a new spot via FCB that shows New Zealand hockey captain Simon Child toying with the features of his Golf GTI after arriving to the hockey turf a little early.  

The main spot features Child tapping the steering wheel with his thumbs, moving the windows up and down with his keys, adjusting the mirror with his hockey stick, putting dance music and then humorously pushing his nose against the window’s glass as it winds up. A second, shorter clip has him tapping the steering wheel as he hums the national anthem.  

This spot follows on from VW’s previous ad released earlier this year, which featured Kiwi sailors Peter Burling and Blair Tuke having a laugh at the misfortune of their friend who slips next to a VW. However, this earlier collaboration between VW and Olympic athletes didn’t end well, with the ad being pulled following a complaint to the ASA.  

According to the ASA, G. Purches and D.M. Hughson-Smith were the complainants, with Purches saying: “The advertisement uses high profile sport people to promote bad and unsafe practices which could have led to serious injury or death, and treats those practices as a joke …”

The latest campaign certainly doesn’t show anyone slipping and falling, but it does tread into risky territory by coupling the most “powerful” GTI of all time with the tagline “get there early”. It isn’t much of a stretch to see this line as condoning driving fast to make it to the destination earlier.        

The webpage marketing the car also includes lines like “adrenalin comes in a range of shapes and sizes” and under the section ‘Handling’ it says “Raise your heartbeat and tear through the bends, with progressive power delivery and traction control for every surface on any road”.

It seems obvious Volkswagen wants to get across that its vehicle is fast, but is this a responsible way to market a car? And is it particularly risky in this instance, after the last ad was pulled?

“As anyone who has worked in the automotive category knows, it’s a challenge to showcase performance cars within the industry regulations,” says FCB New Zealand Asia Pacific executive creative director James Mok.

“We believe we have done it in a way doesn’t breach any code by being true to the VW brand – using subtlety and a smile. We never show the car moving, let alone speeding, nor do we state performance stats. It’s probably the slowest performance car ad ever. To be sure, a legal opinion and customer research supported our position.”

Mok isn’t wrong here, another ad for the car features Sebastien Ogier and the rest of the World Rally Champion team speeding through a quiet, rural road. It seems to make more sense in this context, however, when those driving the fast cars do so professionally and in a more controlled environment. But we’re not sure why a hockey player would need a fast car.

Mok says FCB saw the opportunity to bring the hero products in the Volkswagen ‘Performance’ range together with high performing Olympic athletes in a way that was relevant to the athlete and the cars.

“As the original hot hatch, the Golf GTI is iconic. It was an obvious choice. Volkswagen supports a number of brand ambassadors so it was the perfect opportunity to raise their profile in the lead up to Rio.”

So, did FCB and Volkswagen have to take more care after the last ad was pulled?

“No one creates an ad with the intention of being pulled,” he says. “Obviously we were gutted the complaint for the Alltrack TVC was upheld but we have to respect the decision. Fortunately it was nearing the end of its scheduled media buy. For the Golf GTI ad, we made sure we didn’t expose VW to any risk.”

He says FCB consulted industry regulators, legal counsel and consumers.

“We also made sure our Olympic star, New Zealand hockey captain Simon Child, was entirely happy with the idea and the way he is portrayed. I love his willingness to laugh at himself. What a legend.”

Mok says he has enormous admiration for what the Volkswagen team has been doing over the last six months, as it tries to win back the public’s trust.

“Their priority has been to put customers first in everything they do and their levels of transparency and proactivity is a lesson to any brand that faces a crisis,” he says. 

“As a result customer surveys show clear signs of trust being restored. Creating likeable ads made for New Zealand audiences are just part of the overall story for rebuilding confidence in the brand. We all know it will take time.”

He says so far the response to the new ad has been really positive, and the campaign will be pushed out via TV and social media, with shorter versions to come out on Facebook and Instagram, which will be supported with retail communications for the dealership network and direct communications to existing customers.

Mok also points out Volkswagen’s Olympic sponsorship goes beyond just TV commercials, having been involved with their ambassador’s sports for a number of years.

“As part of its partnership with the NZOC (New Zealand Olympic Committee), VW has also been sponsoring travel packages to Rio for those behind our Olympic athletes, as well as supporters of sport in the local community,” he says.

“These include families who have supported their children in their elite sporting pursuits, but may not be able to get themselves to Rio. These are rich human stories that demonstrate a deeper, more meaningful commitment from Volkswagen and these stories have received excellent earned media coverage. As the brand seeks to rebuild trust, actions speak loudest.”

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