Volkswagen is sorry. But it’s not exactly saying so in a new ad campaign.
The world’s largest automaker has been on something of an apology tour since 2015, when it was publicly accused of using illegal software in its diesel cars to dupe pollution tests. The company was slammed with criminal charges, lawsuits and billions of dollars in government fines.
Volkswagen Group was sorry again in March when CEO Herbert Diess posted an apology on LinkedIn after making remarks that echoed the Nazi-era slogan “Arbeit macht frei.” The expression, which means “Work sets you free,” appeared on the gates of Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
With the new marketing push, the company wants to move on from its self-inflicted wounds.
“We’ve offered thousands of apologies,” said Scott Keogh, who became CEO of Volkswagen’s American unit in November. “For us, this wasn’t about the apology — we’ve been doing that. This is the reassessment of the brand, of the company, and how we want to move forward.”
In the print and video ads, released in the United States last week, Volkswagen nods to the scandal before shifting focus to its coming line of electric vehicles and other projects. Communication experts said the company might have a hard time bringing skeptics on board as it tries to pull off this U-turn.
“It is difficult for Volkswagen to run advertising on the environmental front, because that’s exactly where they got into trouble,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University.
In one of the new commercials, snippets of news broadcasts about the scandal are followed by the strains of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” and the appearance of a Volkswagen employee, swathed in shadow, who is meant to represent the company’s “soul-searching,” Keogh said. Eventually, a glowing Volkswagen ID Buzz, an electric minivan planned for production in 2022, cuts through the gloom. The video ends with these words: “In the darkness, we found the light.”
The “Rebirth” campaign was designed by the agency Johannes Leonardo, which counts Adidas and Google among its clients. The commercials will run a for few weeks before giving way to a series of ads meant to hammer home the notion that a company recently caught cheating is now embracing environmentalism and setting aside what it calls self-interest.
“We wouldn’t be capable of telling that story without first having this moment to clear the air,” Keogh said. “We couldn’t pretend it didn’t happen.”
Clever marketing has helped Volkswagen as far back as 1959, when its “Think Small” campaign — a contrast with the hard-sell tactics of the day — was as minimalist as the Beetle it was promoting.
That pitch, from Julian Koenig of the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency, helped reposition Volkswagen. The carmaker, dogged by its wartime association with Hitler, became “something that was warm and friendly and the antithesis of Nazi Germany,” said Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of advertising at Boston University.
“It absolutely wiped the slate for many people,” he said. “It was really revolutionary.”
Later campaigns, including “Lemon” and “Drivers Wanted,” kept Volkswagen fresh. But at the start of the decade, the brand seemed “out of step with America,” Keogh said, and it was ill equipped to react to the coverage of the emissions scandal.
Public outrage mounted in the weeks before Volkswagen came through with apology ads in 30 or so American newspapers. The campaign was seen as less contrite than other corporate confessionals, like the one Toyota aired during the 2010 Winter Olympics after recalling millions of vehicles. Instead, it was likened to a poorly received mea culpa from BP that showed its unpopular CEO pledging to clean up an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico over a soundtrack of squawking sea gulls.
The new Volkswagen campaign does not go into the internal cultural deficiencies that enabled the cheating, such as a hierarchical structure that discouraged whistle-blowing. But Keogh said the company’s willingness to refer to the scandal at all in its marketing is a sign that Volkswagen’s culture is changing.
“We really needed a reason for people to root for us again,” he added.
Volkswagen’s sales started to rebound last year, thanks in part to the introduction of new sport utility vehicles, but have yet to catch up to precrisis levels. And even as the company has sought to regain the trust of car buyers, it has had to deal with accusations that it illegally sold prototype vehicles, as well as revelations that it financed tests of the effects of diesel exhaust on monkeys.
The automaker is planning a $50 billion escalation of its electric fleet, with 22 million battery-powered vehicles scheduled for production through 2028. Before the emissions uproar, Volkswagen had been lagging its competitors in developing zero-emission vehicles. As part of a 2016 settlement with the federal government (overseen by Robert Mueller), the company agreed to spend $2 billion on electric vehicle infrastructure.
“We would have gotten there,” Keogh said, “but this got us there a little sooner.”
Tiffany Hsu is a New York Times writer.