Volkswagen is back with a new ad campaign. The 60-second spot, created by DDB Berlin, shows a red-haired toddler ageing through a period of 40 years in a gradually evolving set of VW cars that begins with a Beetle and ends with its latest 2016 model. The TV ad concludes with the message: ‘It’s more than just a car. It’s a lifelong companion.’ In its print ads, the message is even more direct: ‘It’s more than just a car. It’s keeping your promises.’

It’s a relatively unremarkable campaign which, at any other time since VW was founded, would have raised a smile but little else. But coming at the lowest point in VW’s corporate existence, it is incendiary.

It’s worth remembering four very sobering things about the VW ‘clean diesel’ scandal in the US before we move on. First, this was not corporate negligence but malfeasance on a massive scale. VW did not overlook something in the production of its so-called clean diesel engines; it deliberately cheated on its emissions data and engine design.

Second, the biggest cost of VW’s lies can be counted not in brand equity or in lost earnings, but in the potential loss of lives. Scientific analysis by academics from MIT and Harvard estimates that 59 people will die in the US from environmental pollution directly attributable to VW’s illegal emissions.

Third, despite much talk of resignations and restructuring, no one in the company has actually been charged or prosecuted.

Finally, VW’s diesel cars continue to operate across the UK and, as yet, not one of the 400,000 vehicles has been recalled and fixed. This will start in March, though VW currently maintains it did not breach any European regulations.

In summary, it would not be egregious for me to believe that VW, through its misrepresentations and misdeeds, could be responsible for the deaths of a significant number of people, and that it has not been held accountable thus far for any of this. And yet this company has opted for a new strapline that focuses on ‘keeping your promises’.

Am I losing my mind? How can a brand that barely six months ago admitted to one of the most deliberate acts of corporate wrongdoing in the history of capitalism now promote itself in Europe with a message of trust? How can it get away with a campaign about trust before it even begins to fix the problem created by its lies?

Volkswagen print ad

I can think of only two explanations.

First, VW has fallen for the oldest trick in the advertising book. An agency convinces the company’s marketers that the best way to handle an issue is to change the brand promise and then work on the other, less external issues, on a secondary basis. It is sometimes called ‘building brands from the outside-in’ or ‘aspirational positioning’. We do not reflect the current reality in our communications; we show how we want it to be and then work towards making this positive vision a reality.

It is also referred to as ‘bullshit marketing’. Proper positioning must pass the age-old ‘three Cs’ test. You make sure the proposition is what your customer wants, is what your company can deliver, and is better than or different from the competition. In VW’s case, it is clear why ‘keep your promises’ resonates with customers and why it offers significant competitive traction versus rival brands. But VW simply does not have the corporate legitimacy to claim this.

It does not keep its promises. It lets customers down.

The other explanation for all this is even more appalling. Perhaps customers don’t care. Perhaps they will watch VW’s new ad campaign, smile at the little baby becoming a man and blithely associate VW with truth, honesty and the intrinsic goodness of things. Like goldfish, they will blink, en masse, and then forget everything.

There is some evidence to support this thesis. Sales at VW are down, but only by 14% in the UK in January, suggesting that most consumers are as unconcerned with corporate reputation as they are with the probity of product claims. If that’s the case, then David Ogilvy was wrong. Utterly wrong. The consumer really is a moron.

If that’s true, a new golden era of advertising awaits. Never mind corporate reputations, product performance and good old fashioned reality – it’s open season on the truth! If VW can be trustworthy, the possibilities for other brands are enormous. Levi’s is cool, BlackBerry is the market leader, cigarettes are good for you, Jeremy Corbyn is thoroughly electable and I, dear reader, am a patient and decent human being with an enduring faith in the power of brands to make the world a better place.

  • Al King

    Yeah made me laugh too. They’re clearly taking the piss. P.S. Levi’s is cool: I wear them.

  • Jonathan Cahill

    Maybe the advertising industry could start by ceasing to praise blatant lies as it did in its admiration for the deceit inherent in the ‘success’ of the Rom bar campaign in Romania.

    The basis of this was stating that the company producing Rom was about to be taken over by the Americans and needed help in terms of sales. Complete fabrication. But in the amoral, blinkered view of many in the advertising industry, really neat!

  • Timm

    Someone at DDB must have been watching too much Mad Men and remembered Don Draper’s line: “If you don’t like what’s being said, then change the conversation.”

  • Richard

    Unfortunately most people would rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. If we start judging businesses by their morality we’ll have nobody left to buy anything from. People are still lining up to buy from Nike, who seem to have built a company by bankrolling every cheat, felon, adulterer and murderer in sport. VW could start covering their car seats in panda-skin, but as long as they run well and look nice then I really don’t think people will care…. Sad, but self-evidently true.

  • Shackletonne

    As interesting as ever, Mark, but I was left disappointed by what this column left unsaid.

    What’s really surprising is that we’re all talking about a VW ad in the context of an emissions scandal. What appears to have been forgotten in all the hoo-hah is that an American car giant has escaped with a slapped wrist for ACTUALLY killing over twice as many people as VW is estimated MIGHT be responsible for killing through increased air pollution. And that said US car giant was aware for over a decade that a fault in its vehicles was killing people. Clearly American lawmakers see more value in suing European competitors for what their actions might do than bringing their own car brands to heel for actual deaths.

    What’s most interesting in all this is not that VW has a new ad out to try to usher in a fresh start. What’s interesting is that GM has enjoyed six consecutive quarters of growth in the US market. Go figure.