Why Volkswagen’s ID Buzz commercial fails as an apology

In its first commercial that directly addresses the emissions scandal, Volkswagen is unable to make a convincing case for a journey from darkness to light, argues independent communications consultant Karthik Srinivasan

The new Volkswagen ad is truly path-breaking. It starts by referring to the infamous emissions scandal.

The company ran a rather functional print apology campaign in the US and the UK in late-2015 which was less about what Volkswagen was doing, and more about what people could do if their vehicles were affected.

This is the first time Volkswagen has owned up to its wrong-doing in a commercial, but without really apologising.

There are two ways to consider this narrative.

The good:

1. The honesty

2. A clear path to redemption in public eyes, from a scandal to an electric future.

The bad:

1. It reminds even people who may have forgotten, about a scandal which happened in 2015.

2. There’s no clear explanation of how sorry they are and merely asks the public to trust them to now do the right thing. Something that was expected of them, even before the scandal. It is also intriguing that the YouTube video doesn’t have ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’ visible, despite so many views.

There is a cardinal rule in PR and marketing called ‘framing’. A simple way to understand framing: American President Richard Nixon announced on national television, in 1973, “I’m not a crook” while talking about the Watergate scandal.

The moment he uttered the word ‘crook’, people immediately imagined a crook, even if he specifically denied being that.

The corollary to this: when a brand claims it is premium explicitly and charges accordingly, we tend to assume it is true.

In this case, the need was to frame the narrative in a way that doesn’t allude directly to a negative (the emissions scandal). To talk of remedial measures undertaken, without explicitly addressing the bad and focusing more on what has been done, positively.

There are ways to address the negative that are more effective than that deployed by Volkswagen. For instance, using credible individuals to offer an endorsement. It could be celebrities like popular Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan’s endorsement of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk after a crisis where worms were found in certain bars of chocolate.

Or the CEO her/himself, stepping up to the plate to apologise. In 2009, when a couple of Domino’s employees filmed themselves putting snot on a pizza, the video went massively viral, prompting a full-blown crisis. It took the then President of Domino’s USA to get before the camera and offer a heartfelt apology to mitigate the mess.

Or maybe use normal, real people, particularly for a social media campaign. They can talk about what has been done so people like them can start trusting Volkswagen again.

But the Volkswagen ad has none of that.

There are popular sayings and phrases that appear to describe what it has done in many Indian languages. Like, ‘Aa bail mujhe maar’ in Hindi [Come on bull, please hit me] implying ‘asking for trouble, proactively’; or the Tamil saying, ‘Enga appan kudhir kulla illa’ [My father is not in the haystack], implying that by talking about the haystack, you offer a clue that he may be hiding there.

Considering this is the first marketing effort from Volkswagen that even bothers to talk about the scandal – albeit subtly and in the background – not connecting it to what the company feels about the scandal is, well…scandalous.

Instead, the narrative merely talks down to the audience – with a fantastic song to boot – that it has learned from the past (darkness) and is looking to the future (light).

Given how widely reported the emission scandal was, and how damaging it was for the brand, it should assume that we, the people, are standing right in between darkness and light.

We are looking forward to what the brand has to say, particularly because it wasn’t a technical failure – like Toyota’s ‘unintended acceleration’ related recalls. In Volkswagen’s case, it was wilful manipulation of the vehicle emission tests.

The final irony: there is still some distance between darkness and light since this ad showcases a model that is expected only in late 2020.Karthik Srinivasan is an independent communications consultant for digital marketing and former national lead at Social@Ogilvy. He is based in Bengaluru, India. A version of this article was first appeared on his blog


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