When fraud gives you lemons

“Remember that time we knowingly cheated those emissions tests and lied to the world until we got caught? Let’s use that to launch our new electric car brand.”

Excellent plan. Cracking advice. “Let’s do this,” they said. And they did.

VW has just released a new ad in the States. It’s smartly shot, nicely moody and complete twaddle. More specifically, it’s over-engineered, cliché-stuffed, arrogant twaddle. And it makes me sad. 

Hello darkness my old friend

In case you’ve forgotten (as many of us have) back in 2015, VW got caught faking emissions tests on their diesel engines. As I understand it, they programmed the car’s computer to show 40 times less toxic output in testing than the engines delivered in the real world. It was clever stuff. It was also wide-scale fraud that cost VW billions and is estimated to have killed about 80 people. A pretty dark time all round.

I’ve come to talk to you again.

Before launching their new brand platform, “drive something bigger than yourself”, VW decided they needed to out the elephant in the room. They wanted to feel authentic and gain credibility before moving into their mission of saving the planet. So they made an ad.

“Our biggest mistake has led to the biggest transformation in the company’s history,” said Jim Zabel, senior VP of VW of America. And that’s great. Except it wasn’t a mistake, it was fraud. You lied to people for a really long time. And, just quietly, you forgot to say sorry.

When life gives you lemons…

While I didn’t love the relentless darkness-into-light, group-think commercial, it’s the print ad that got me. They took one of the most famous ads in advertising history. And they fucked it.

DDB’s “Lemon” helped launch the Beetle into America. In a market promoting bigger and better cars with bigger and better ads, DDB ‘disrupted’ the trend and nailed the art of the humble brag. Everything about it was game-changing. Straight image, twisted headline, smart copy, and seminal art-direction from Helmut Krone. The ‘Lemon’ ad is, literally, a work of art.

Then someone in the cliché department at VW America noted that Lemons can give you Lemonade. “Even the sourest situation can be turned into something sweet” reads the copy. And executives drank some Koolaid and shared enthusiastic fist bumps. And the ad completely forgets to be clever or ironic or even interesting.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Triumph from adversity is one of the world’s oldest stories. It celebrates the underdog as they battle through tough times and somehow succeed in spite of the challenge. Killing people for money isn’t adversity. It’s crime. So it’s probably the wrong story for VW to choose.

That’s not to say VW can’t move past their past. Essentially, they already have. That was then and this is now. We’ve changed. We’ve learned. We’re fixing it. All of those things work together with time to heal all wounds, mostly.

But labelling the biggest scandal in automative history as a lemon? That’s just stupid.

Hello darkness my old friend. Can you help me sell a Kombi? Really?

Drawing inspiration from crime can only grow fruit from a poisonous tree.

If the biggest role of brand advertising is to make me feel, this is a fail. It makes me feel dirty, complicit and like you must think I’m stupid. Come on VW, you can do better.

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

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Michael Goldthorpe is Managing Partner at Hunch.

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