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FutureNow Article
Wednesday, Jul. 25, 2007

Are VW Ads Sending A Dangerous Signal?

By Jeff Sexton
July 25th, 2007

farfegnugen?Jeffrey Eisenberg’s post on the 12-kinds of ads slideshow reminded me of the much talked-about VW “Safe Happens” campaign, which in turn reminded me of my comments regarding negative images and modulating their intensity.

To me, this VW (Volkswagen AG) campaign gets it wrong. First, they make the negative image as intense as possible — even to the point of pointing the camera in a passenger’s-eye view during the most traumatic moments of the crash. Definitely a present tense and “You” perspective!

Additionally, they give the viewer only the briefest glimpse of the intact passengers after the crash. And the viewer is looking at them from an audience-member standpoint, in a “them” perspective. The brevity and perspective combine to create a final, positive image that pales in comparison to the trauma of the crash. Not good.

So naturally, I was interested in the effectiveness of the ads in driving sales. Turns out, it’s not perfectly clear. On one hand, it is clear that the ads generated not only publicity and buzz, but genuine consumer interest. Also, VW had a record-breaking year in 2006, with Jetta sales leading the way.

On the other hand, the ads only played with significant frequency for a short time in April and May, and the end of 2005 was marked by release of the new model Jetta. Finally, the ads were clearly polarizing for viewers. Tim Miles discussed this in an ASB blog post during the height of the ads, and his comments say it best:

“They were inescapable yesterday during the Giants-Cowboys game on Fox. By the second one, I was flipping the channel, then flipping back after I knew it would be over…They graphically depict side-impact crashes, then show everyone walking away from the crash. However, the crashes are so unsettling that the last mental image they leave me with isn’t everyone walking away, but the awful visuals and noises of the crash.

Authentic? Sure. Make me feel like buying a VW? Nope.

Of course, emotionally compelling ads will always be polarizing: you can’t attract some people without repelling others just as strongly. But a good copywriter should be able to bend the percentages in your favor, with more people — or at least more of the right people — strongly attracted and less people (mostly intentionally excluded people) repelled.

So, where does that leave us? With a thought experiment.

Making some rough parallels between cinematography and (film) directing with copywriting, imagine you’ve been given a strategy: you’re to highlight the palpable, emotional reality of car crashes (read: shine your light on the “itch”/fear), so as to present VW’s safety features in an emotionally compelling light. How would you modify these commercials in order to ensure the negative image does not overwhelm the audience’s associations?

Here’s what I might do:

1) Keep the prelude about the same, but shorten it.

2) In the final instant before impact or just after impact, switch to a birds-eye, overhead view. Show the crash as if the audience is looking down from on top of it. Don’t slow motion any of this except for maybe the instant of impact for a fraction of a second after switching views. This might help viewers re-orient better. Then jump-cut back to a passenger’s-eye view as the worst of the trauma is subsiding.

3) Now use every trick imaginable to make the mental image of being OK as intense as possible. Maybe even have the camera act as the drivers eyes. Show the airbag receding. Have a very audible first breath/inhale. Pan down to check the driver’s hands. Open the door. Get out and look around as your friends and loved ones are getting out of the car. Make the moment of eye contact last, maybe even slow-mo it. Depending on your lactose tolerance, you might even have a passenger say, “Man, I’m buying a Jetta for my next car.” ;)

4) Now flash to the screenshot of the VW Jetta’s crash ratings.

Would that be as jarring or intense as the original? Nope.

Does that mean the ad would have been effectively neutered? I don’t think so. Depending on how the thing was shot, I think that new version could be intense enough to make an impact (pun intended) without having the image of the crash overwhelm the viewer.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with me on that or whether the guidelines I posted are always right. The perspectives act as a framework in which to think about these choices so that you can examine the dynamics involved and make conscious, intelligent decisions. If you choose to risk the negative associations that come with the more “intense” commercial, at least you’ll know what you are risking and take some precautions against it.

I hope this helps.

[Editors note: the author of this post is now blogging at]

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Comments (5)

  1. Interesting perspective Jeff. Great post. I’m not sure if VW trully thinks about the customer all that much. I wrote an article a while back about VW and thier disconnect from thier customers. I’d be interested on your take. Click here to read..

  2. Jeff, your approach would have been better. I was left thinking about all the bad VW Bug wrecks I’d seen over the years. We went out and bought a Honda after that.

  3. From the standpoint of a VW owner, the idea of safety is reinforced in my mind by those ads. So, to me, at least, they work as they are. I feel good/better about the car I have and my next car will be a VW.

    I agree with you that the ads could be improved. I like the idea of placing a little more emphasis on the after-crash moments and flashing the safety ratings but I am not sure I would do those things at the cost of minimizing the build-up to the crash.

  4. Chris,

    Thanks for commenting. I agree with you that the ads were effective in engaging the viewer and in creating a positive response from some audience members, such as yourself. But the ads were also violent enough to turn other viewers totally off. While the ability to polarize an audience is normally one of the hallmarks of a good ad, my point was simply that effective copywriting can help favorably alter the percentage of the audience that responds positively by ensuring that the positive message/solution outweighs the negative mental image. Which is where your comments about placing more emphasis on the after crash moments enter into my critique.

    Ideally, you want the ad to be vivid and visceral enough to highlight the problem while making sure that the emotional take-away involves safety and being OK after the crash. As it was, I suspect that a large percentage of the audience left remembering the crash and not the safety – at least on a emotional level.

  5. It depends on the model of course. 2009 VW Tiguan earned a 5-star crash test rating from the government’s New Car Assessment Program (NCAP).

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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