Volkswagen Does Something No Other Manufacturer Is Doing — Advertise Electric Cars

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On June 5, Volkswagen of America kicked off a new ad campaign designed to promote electric cars and rehabilitate the company’s image, which has been badly tarnished with diesel exhaust fumes. In a press release, it said, “Volkswagen of America tonight begins a new direction for the brand in the United States, built around responsibility, innovation and how a major automaker can credibly contribute to the greater good.” It is leading off with this ad, which will be featured during the NBA playoffs.

A Good Day For EV Advocates

From the point of view of an EV advocate, this is an historic moment. For the first time ever in America, a car company is spending advertising dollars to promote electric vehicles in a big way on national television. (The campaign includes a host of print ads as well.)

In preparation for the new ad campaign, Scott Keogh, the new  CEO of Volkswagen of America, said last fall, “We’ve offered thousands of apologies. 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. We wouldn’t be capable of telling that story without first having this moment to clear the air, to make the pivot. We couldn’t pretend it didn’t happen.”

In a press release, he adds, “This campaign is for all of those we disappointed, all of those who stayed with us, those who worked like crazy to keep us moving forward and for all of those who stopped caring. We have a responsibility to do better, to be greater and we intend to shoulder that responsibility.”

Just a few weeks ago, Volkswagen released another TV ad focusing on its upcoming family of electric cars.

Brickbats For VW

The new ad attempts to show the company groping its way through the dark times after the diesel cheating scandal broke until it found the light. Some people aren’t buying it. “It is difficult for Volkswagen to run advertising on the environmental front, because that’s exactly where they got into trouble,” Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, tells the New York Times.

Writing in Forbes, contributor Will Burns excoriates the new Volkswagen ad and the entire campaign. “It’s a soft, soggy mash that tries its best to springboard to a better future, but instead only reminds us of the past. Does the VW brand really think we will thank them for cheating now that they finally (almost) have electric vehicles?”

Burns goes on to remind readers that Toyota introduced the first Prius hybrid in 1997. Volkswagen offered “Clean Diesel” in response. Well, that’s true. Yet no other major manufacturer jumped on the hybrid bandwagon either. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Burns’ thesis seems to be that because Volkswagen is late to the EV party, it has no business being involved at all, this despite the company doing more to bring electric cars to market than most of its competitors.

To follow Burns’ logic, only Tesla should be allowed to trumpet its electric car credentials because by his definition every other company is late to the party. Damn them all to hell and slam a lid on all EV advertising. That’ll fix ’em! Burns adds at the end of his hit piece in Forbes that he is the “CEO/Creative Director of virtual idea-generation firm, Ideasicle. I am also a Brand Consultant. If your brand isn’t speaking to you, you might want to speak to me.” No actually, Will, I won’t be calling you. Not now. Not ever.

Even among our coterie of friends here at CleanTechnica, Volkswagen has some serious detractors. In our story yesterday about Electrify America and Walmart completing the installation of DC fast chargers at 120 stores, Unplugged left this virulent comment: “I think every one of these gushing Electrify America articles should accompanied by the following note: Electrify America is funded by $2 billion from Volkswagen’s 2016 diesel emissions scam settlement. While Electrify America is a benefit to EVs, always remember that VW was forced to supply funding because VW contributed to the early death of thousands of people worldwide.”

While Unplugged may have his reasons, that same response could be aimed at every fossil fuel company, every utility company that ever used coal to generate electricity, every airline, every diesel truck manufacturer, and every manufacturer that ever polluted out skies and waterways with industrial waste. Slamming Volkswagen for its diesel emissions is like blaming Nestlé for the torrent of single use plastic bottles in the world. Yes, they are partially responsible, but focusing solely on their contribution completely misses the larger issue.

Will The Public Buy It?

Can a leopard change its spots? Will Volkswagen be successful in its attempt to rebrand itself and win back US customers? Clever marketing has worked for the company in the past. After WW II, the company had to overcome the negative associations between it and the regime of Adolf Hitler. “Keeping up with the Kremplers” was one of a series of ads that helped change public opinion.

More recently, it ran this very sly “lemons to lemonade” print ad, although it probably should have featured a Golf TDI instead of a Beetle.

Volkswagen electric car
Credit: Volkswagen

Something seems to be working. The company reports US sales were up 14% year over year in May at a time when the rest of the industry is suffering from declining sales.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

As an EV advocate, I am excited to see the electric cars from Volkswagen that will be on sale in America beginning next year. When I pointed out the new VW television ad to my wife, that ID Buzz electric van got an emotional response from her. Call it a “Wow!” We can see ourselves parking one of those where the LEAF now sits in our garage some day, God willing and the creek don’t rise.

I like the new ad, and a big part of my positive attitude comes from an emotional attachment I have with the song “Sounds of Silence,” which was released in 1964 by Simon and Garfunkel at a time when they were still running around to New York City coffee houses and calling themselves Tom & Jerry. That tune was a big part of my formative years and it still resonates strongly with me today.

One of the lyrics in the song is, “And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made.” Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that “neon god” of 1964 could be the “social media god” of 2019? I think not. In any event, the people still aren’t listening.

I think the proper response to Volkswagen and its commitment to bring compelling electric cars to market can be found in the thoughtful and stirring words of George W. Bush when he said, “Bring it on!” Doesn’t get much more eloquent that that, does it?

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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