At VW, There Are Bad Ads and Good Ads
Good ads wanted.
The spots: A Volkswagen salesman takes some car-buyers out on test drives. Each drive gets just a little bit weird. For instance, one man is so enthused by the Jetta's handling that he shrieks at the top of his lungs. In another spot, a woman loves the Passat's acceleration, so she floors it past a highway patrolman. Through all these shenanigans, the cheerful salesman tries to keep his cool. (Click here to watch these spots, titled "Cornering" and "Torque.")
When I first saw these ads on television, I assumed they were for a local dealership. Fine, I thought—decent production values for Joe Shmoe's Volkswagen Hut. But then I realized they're in fact part of a national VW campaign. What? Cue bitter disappointment, burgeoning frown, downcast eyes. Are these really the new VW spots?
It's not that they're such awful ads. Compared to your average car ad (vehicle speeds through empty desert landscape; announcer bellows out financing offers), they're actually quite good. The problem is that they just don't compare to past Volkswagen spots. By contrast, these salesman ads are maddeningly pedestrian.
Over the past few years, Volkswagen's made some of the best ads on television. There was one where some kids drove around on a summer night, backed by the strains of the haunting Nick Drake song "Pink Moon." There was one where all of New Orleans moved to the rhythm of a Volkswagen's windshield wipers. And of course there was the epic "Mr. Blue Sky" spot, which explored the monotonous life of an office worker—with the help of some jumpy edits and an unearthed pop gem from ELO. (You can watch this spot here, or read Slate's's take on it here.)
Those were brilliant commercials. Masterfully composed, always eye-catching. Emotionally gripping, even. The kind of ads you look forward to seeing, the way you wish your favorite song would come on the radio. The kind of ads that are better than the TV shows they interrupt. Set against wonderful work like that, the salesman spots are just regular old ads.
And that started to make me angry. Why would Volkswagen, capable of genius-level advertising, stoop to the banal? It almost seemed beneath them. Eventually, I got so worked up about it that I gave them a call.
According to Alan Pafenbach, creative director at Arnold Worldwide (Volkswagen's ad agency for the past 10 years), the key here is "product cycle." At the beginning of any product cycle, when the product is first introduced, the ads tend to be emotional showstoppers. ("Mr. Blue Sky," for instance, introduced the new Beetle convertible.) A certain subset of people sees this type of ad and instantly craves the product—feels its mojo, grooves on its vibe. When it all comes together as planned, these people will run out and buy a new car based on some pre-verbal brand love deep within their psyches.
But a year or two down the road—after this type of buyer is already driving around in the car and giving it a nickname and affixing "I Love My VW" bumper stickers—you need to start winning over a new type of buyer. People who buy with their heads instead of their hearts. Ads aimed at these folks will tout the car's more practical benefits. (Pafenbach reminded me that, after the glamour of "Mr. Blue Sky" had faded, VW ran more straightforward ads, in which they emphasized the Beetle's safety.)
So, these salesman ads mark the end of a product cycle. They make the case for Volkswagen's superior handling and acceleration, which is a key selling point for the brand. (Notice the ads talk about how—unlike Japanese cars—VWs are built to survive on the Autobahn.) And these ads have a specific goal: Lure people in for test drives. Pafenbach says most people these days make their car-buying decisions on the Web, then come into the dealer all set to buy. For VW, that's a problem, because it's only through a test drive that buyers come to appreciate VW's performance. These ads try to bring the test drive into your living room.
Once this was all explained to me, I saw the salesman in a different light. The spots are halfway decent, for what they are. There's a hero (the plucky salesman, who Pafenbach says was modeled on Tom Hanks' character in Big). There's a human situation (the salesman reacting to the buyers' oddball antics), instead of just an exterior shot of a car with a booming voice-over. You could even say there's a narrative here. And on these points alone, it's leagues ahead of your average slapdash car ad.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.