I read two Volkswagen-related things yesterday, a record low number for me. One was our story about the EPA’s new suspicions of software-emissions cheating in their diesel V6 engines, and the other was an ad for the VW Type 2 Bus from 1967. VW’s gains in automotive technology are staggering, but somehow on par with the losses in honesty. What happened?
It’s worth looking at this ad in detail to understand what I mean. I didn’t pick this ad specifically, it just happened to be the one that was in a November 1967 issue of Popular Science from a stack I keep near my bowel-motion setup. This ad is from the era of Volkswagen’s golden age of advertising, the campaign started by Doyle Dane Bernbach in the 1950s that is still studied by advertisers today.
This particular ad—and, really Volkswagen’s entire campaign of the era—focused on two key trait: humor and honesty.
The “honesty” I’m referring to isn’t the usual marketing-grade honesty, it’s actual, genuine honesty. The subject of this ad, which is showcasing VW’s freshly-redesigned second-generation Type 2 (known as the ‘bay-window’ bus to VW geeks) is that Volkswagen has listened to the customer’s comments and complaints about their previous (and quite successful) generation of Microbus, and has made changes in the design of the second generation bus.
They go so far as to include the actual complaints in the copy:
“Some people weren’t too crazy about the way it rode. “Like a truck,” someone said.
Some people weren’t too crazy about the way it looked either. “No class,” someone else said.
“It’s not the most comfortable thing in the world.”
and so on. Even better, it ends the whole ad like this:
“It’s kind of homely,” someone finally said. “Can you make it beautiful?” Nope.
Just take a moment there and read over all those quotes (especially the last one there) and try, just try to imagine modern Volkswagen — or, really, any modern-day car company — admitting anything like that about their product in an advertisement. It absolutely, positively would never happen.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Really, it would never fucking happen.
Modern PR people get visibly tense when even the slightest bit of something like criticism is mentioned about the cars they shill. I’ve had plenty of interactions with friendly, helpful PR people, and I have never heard any of them say anything negative about the products of the company they work for.
Of course, in the case of this old VW Bus ad, Volkswagen of course had solutions to the issues the complaints brought up, because, of course, they want you to buy their new product. But even admitting their previous product had flaws is just not something seen in the car industry today.
And then, at the end, by maintaining a self-effacing attitude about their unconventional-looking “station wagon,” admitting that, no, it will never be beautiful, they manage to do more to make their car appealing than if they had five paragraphs explaining in detail about how amazing their design actually is.
The character of Volkswagen of 1967, as demonstrated in this ad, seems to be completely lost in Volkswagen of 2015, and that right there is at the root of their current substantial problems.
Volkswagen’s entire personality for the years of their greatest success in America hinged on the idea of humble honesty. This is a lesson that VW seems to have completely forgotten, but if they want to survive and thrive again, it’s one they desperately need to learn.
This sort of honesty was much easier for Volkswagen of the 1960s. VW had one basic technological platform—opposed, air-cooled, rear-mounted engines on a backbone chassis with torsion bar suspension—and they repackaged that same basic formula into economy cars, sporty(ish) cars, trucks, vans, buses, station wagons, delivery vehicles, and whatever else they could. It was easy to be honest when your basic technology was simple and straightforward and consistent.
Modern cars no longer have the luxury of easy-to-understand technology, and, in the modern Volkswagen is a far cry from the company it was in the 1960s. The greater VW group makes Lamborghinis and Bentleys and the exotic, envelope-pushing Bugatti Veyron. VW has replaced simplicity with a pride in bewildering engineering complexity, and has moved from making cars designed for simple repairs to ones designed to impress people with engineering degrees.
VW lost interest in brutal honesty a long time ago, and instead turned to the insecure braggadocio of “German Engineering” and slogans like “Drivers Wanted” that suggest their cars are more advanced, more rewarding, and for a more discerning driver.
Really, it doesn’t matter if any of that is true or not; what it does mean is that VW’s incentive to be open, honest, and ready to accept criticism is long gone, and these are all traits that led them to develop emissions-cheating software for their cars instead of accepting the realistic trade-offs of diesel motors.
If the Volkswagen of 1967 was still in operation today, we’d have ads showing Diesel Jettas losing drag races, but doing hundreds of them before requiring a fill-up. We’d have ads with diesel Passat wagons happily waving by faster cars, because the driver is an intelligent person who made an adult, rational choice to have a car with stellar fuel economy and clean emissions, and they’re fine with that.
If they want a sporty car, VW would be happy to sell them a GTI. But these diesel buyers understand the power/economy/emissions tradeoffs, because VW’s hypothetical advertising would have educated them, like one would talk to an intelligent friend.
If this was what modern VW was, they’d be selling more cars, to the people who now may be buying Prii or Subarus. They’d confront their engineering issues head-on, and they’d have no shame letting people know certain problems weren’t easy, but they’re trying their best, and things are getting better.
When real honesty left Volkswagen, so did real respect for their customers. When the respect left, it was easy to decide to fool people into buying cars that didn’t really give them the performance and economy and emissions they claimed, because who gives a shit about tricking someone you don’t really respect, anyway?
Of course, if I’m really, really honest, what I’d want is VW’s corporate policies to be more like their image in these 40-year old ads. Real 1960s Volkswagen was no angel, either, as they did a bit of emissions-cheating way back in 1973. But their public image, filtered through DDB’s fantastic ads, is still a worthwhile goal for modern VW’s actual corporate culture. Doing in private what you say you’re doing in public? There’s a word for that, and it’s called integrity.
I’m sure Volkswagen will survive this, though I’m not yet sure who they will be. I do have some advice, though. Every bathroom at VW HQ needs to have a stack of 60s-era magazines by the toilets. The company suggested by the copy of those ads—open, friendly, honest, open to criticism, committed to quality—that’s who they need to be again.
Every employee will be required to flip through them while pooping, and must read at least one vintage VW ad a day.
Plus, the forced-regularity of their employees probably has some benefits in itself, too.
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