It’s been less than five months since the world woke up to the knowledge that Volkswagen had been systematically defrauding humanity to reach its business goal of being the world’s largest car manufacturer. They have just launched a new brand campaign, tugging at heartstrings, positioning their cars as "lifelong companions," trying to move public perceptions forward by going back to the nostalgia they are so good at evoking.
In the interim, they have been dealing with the of honor and "responsibility" one can expect from a company that installed software into its products that cheat on tests designed to keep our air breathable. ("Responsibility" is one of VW’s three core brand values.)
In October, the CEO of VW America blamed the whole thing on a "couple of software engineers" in a hearing with the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Rep. Chris Collins, a former engineer, called bullshit:
"We'll hear that the use of defeat devices are incompatible with Volkswagen's corporate culture. And I want to tell you, I don't buy it. … Either your entire organization is incompetent when it comes to intellectual property, and I don't buy that, or they are complicit at the highest levels in a massive cover-up that continues today."
Then Volkswagen ran an ad celebrating German Unity Day, which said "Thank you for 25 years of faith," faith they obviously had betrayed, which was seen as unusually bold by local readers.
In January, the California Air Resources Board rejected VW’s plan to recall and repair the illegal diesel vehicles. They said the plan "was not complete and is deficient for several reasons," and that it does "not adequately address overall impacts on vehicle performance, emission and safety."
Later in January, it was announced that the scandal meant VW appeared on the most-hated brands list in the UK for the first time, at No. 4 (Shell remains unchallenged at the top).
However, it’s not been all bad because, speaking of lists, VW managed to move up one spot in one list that shows, beyond all reasonable doubt, that something is rotten in the state of advertising. According to the Gunn Report, VW was the world’s most awarded advertiser last year.
Let’s look at some of the work. There’s the French spot "Kids," filmed in the soft white halcyon haze of VW ads, in which parents lie to their children, used as a metaphor to make customers wary of unscrupulous car salesmen. I kid you not.
Nielsen awarded its Super Bowl spot from the previous year 2015’s Automotive Ad of the year. Do you remember that one? It’s called "Wings," and the VW engineers are portrayed as angels, with wings growing out of their backs.
Yes, I realize, the scandal didn’t come to light until September, and it looks like award shows that were judged after that, such as the London International Awards, didn’t give VW anything. That's appropriate because how a brand behaves impacts how ads are received. But anyone who got an award for VW work last year, or even before in some cases, should be running to give back their statuettes, for the sake of all our souls.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that VW’s network advertising agency partner has decided to enter fewer awards this year, seeing how the wind is still blowing, thick with the one million tonnes of extra nitrogen oxides that the "defective" vehicles put into the air each year. To give a sense of scale, the biggest power station in Western Europe emits 39,000 tonnes a year.
Some of VW’s most awarded creative work in recent decades, as I pointed out previously, was for work promoting its Blue Motion and other environmentally friendly technologies.
The advertising industry has been up in arms about the prevalence of scam ads in award shows, which never really ran with any significant media weight, or apps that promise to cure autism but "crash every time" according to reviews on the app store.
With VW, we have advertising that, as we now know, was directly lying to people, who then bought cars that poisoned the skies. The "Old Wives Tales" ads promoted the VW Passat TDI Clean Diesel by dismissing unfair myths about diesel engines, like the fact that they are "stinky" pollution machines. (The official ads have been removed but nothing can be truly be scrubbed from the Internet, or the record.)
I totally appreciate that the agencies in question didn’t know and don’t deserve to be punished for doing good work for bad people. Except agencies are, you know, agents who work on behalf of, and as extensions of, our clients. Any advertising that’s been awarded for work to VW about diesel cars or green technologies is based on a lie, and thus it is a much worse kind of scam than the problematic prototypes and phony print ads, one that fundamentally threatens trust in advertising.
Green Car Journal has announced that it is rescinding the two Green Car of the Year awards that VW has won with diesel vehicles, reaching back to 2008 and 2010. We would do well to look to their example. If we allow truthiness to be creative lauded, if we crown VW the best advertiser in the world, we are implicitly saying that it doesn’t matter to the advertising industry if the company is lying, as long as the ads are creative.
And that’s not an industry we should want to be part of.