Should We Show The Love to V-Dub?
An Enthusiast’s Take on Dieselgate and The Future of Volkswagen
As the owner of 2.5 classic Volkswagens (1: VW-Porsche 914, 2.0, 1974 2: VW Scirocco, 1.6,1980 3. VW Scirocco, 16V, 1987) I’ve got an obvious bias and will do my best to remain objective. Volkswagen’s brand was part of my American Dream—self-expression, style, and practical adventures for the masses. As I discussed in Enterprise Tech Personas Are Human Too, the revolutionary ads started in 1959 by Doyle Dane Bernbach expressed a refreshing candor, the virtues of craftsmanship, and a softer sell that worked hard against Germany’s dark legacy. Year after year the advertising matched the driving and lifestyle experience. Then Volkswagen’s emission scandal came to light in 2015.
Toxic Management and Dieselgate
Basically, Volkswagen installed a sensor that would detect when cars were being tested, and adjust the cars to pass the test. The underhanded activity would be debatable, if the environmental impact of the actual outputs weren’t so noxious. Car and Driver explains, “While this mode [regular driving mode] likely delivers higher mileage and power, it also permits heavier nitrogen-oxide emissions (NOx)—a smog-forming pollutant linked to lung cancer—up to 40 times higher than the federal limit. That doesn’t mean every TDI is pumping 40 times as much NOx as it should. Some cars may emit just a few times over the limit, depending on driving style and load.” That’s way too high a risk of the big C for my blood.
In reviewing Volkswagen leadership and culture it is apparent issues traveled from the top, down. CEO Matthias Müller came from Porsche to replace CEO Martin Winterkorn, who’s now facing a 10-year prison sentence in Germany. Reuters reported that Müller viewed centralized power and brutally demanding leadership as contributing factors to the company’s misdeeds. It’s no wonder that Bernd Osterloh, Chairman of the General Works Council, told Automotive News Europe that almost two thirds of Volkswagen’s staff see “no improvement” in VW’s corporate culture, nearly two and a half years after the diesel-emissions fraud was revealed. In this climate, is their new campaign promoting the ID Buzz van/bus in good taste?
Feel the Bernbach?
Volkswagen’s new “Rebirth” campaign has its virtues—with the reimagining of the Bernbach “Lemon” print ad standing as the crowning jewel. The power and effectiveness of this campaign has been well explored and that’s not the purpose of this post. I’m an easy mark for the campaign’s mix of nostalgia, wanderlust, eco-friendliness, and fab design.
The work attempts to repurpose the brand’s well-earned peace and love vibe, and reestablish its counterculture cred. There’s a sickly quality to the ploy—a ‘too soon’ bell clanging in my gut. The campaign doesn’t actually say “We’re sorry.” It does address their “mistake”, but they were caught dead to rights, so what did that really cost them? The fact that the new ride isn’t even going to be available for a couple of years is the most egregious element. Who wants a rain check for an apology?
I fear that we may be entering an age of phonies.” Bill Bernbach
The VW mystique of authenticity is tantalizing. #vwcamper has over 425,000+ posts on Instagram. Photos highlight the air-cooled beauties sheltering the woke, while they rough it in rustic splendor and repose in their charming breadboxes. Portlandia’s skit, shown below, is a fantastic harpoon of the fantasy, making it easier to avoid the lure of VW’s proposal of electric glamping. Volkswagen is struggling with the dilemma of many behemoths—being truly authentic and benevolent, as opposed to simply stating an appealing brand proposition.
Meanwhile, I am having the a/c compressor rebuilt in my 1980 Scirocco, with the eco-friendlier R134 coolant. I’m used to no power steering, so making slow, deliberate moves is part of my zen. I’ll be nice and chill this summer as I tone my forearms and contemplate a turn into electric van life. I wonder if some safety regulation forbade the revival of the round headlights. The squinty headlight design makes me suspicious, among a few other things.
VW has taunted us with adorable electric bus prototypes for a decade, and the scandal solidified their commitment to deliver. The VW electric fleet will likely be above board—a decent offering of retribution, and an investment in a future with cleaner vehicles. I think if an announcement campaign that showed a bit more deference and convincing regret came first, “Rebirth” would go down much more smoothly. Perhaps a few years later, when the bad vibes have waned, and the work is leading the product release.