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From this week's

April 23, 2008
Same as it ever was for VW.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo

Detroit. “Das Auto” is the new global theme line for VW, and it is being presented here in the U.S. in a new, hipper-than-thou advertising campaign by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the multi-decorated ad agency based in Miami (and Boulder, CO), featuring a “loveable” (VW’s words) Beetle named “Max” as talk show interviewer (with the obligatory German accent), and astronaut Richard Searfoss, Napster founder Shawn Fanning, coach Bob Knight, actor David Hasselhoff and leggy super model Heidi Klum as “guests” in separate spots. Out several weeks now, this new VW campaign has left a lot of people scratching their heads. And no wonder.

Look beyond the quirkiness of the advertising, and you’ll find it is business as usual for VW when it comes to marketing here in the U.S. It has basically become a formulaic exercise now for VW marketers, and it goes something like this: Hire ultra-hip ad agency of the moment, let them create their “magic,” unleash their esoteric and calculatingly ultra-cool advertising on the unsuspecting American car-buying consumer public, revel as the ad critics wax-on eloquently about how brilliant the advertising is, watch the sales needle move not one iota, then start the process all over again eighteen months later.

As part of VW’s perennial quest to find itself here in the U.S., this “Max” campaign is the latest attempt by the German automaker to somehow reconnect with the American car-buying consumer.

And it fails miserably.

Sure, the iconic Beetle is cool, but for whom? Are young consumers going to really give a damn about the cultural meaning of the Beetle to that certain generation who grew up in the 60s? No. Will the lame repartee between Max and his “guests” do anything to change perception or move the needle about VW? No again. Will the unbelievably overwrought print that goes with the TV resonate with any consumer demographic? Oh, Hell no.

This new VW campaign smacks of the classic Crispin Porter + Bogusky “M.O.” - which is to give consumers the following message right up front in everything they do: “WARNING: You’re far too unhip to understand this stuff, but trust us, it’s great and we’re brilliant.”

And predictably, some advertising “experts” have weighed-in attesting to the hipness of this new VW ad campaign, coming up with such pearls of wisdom like “it breaks through the clutter” and “it moves the needle.”

But what is it selling, and what is it telling us about VW, exactly? That VW can do quirky-crazy advertising? That VW is bringing back the ghosts of Beetles past? That VW’s ad agency does real cool stuff?

And by going back to the well one more time to capture the nostalgic magic of the Beetle - when there’s not one single attribute that made the reputation of that car alive and well in the company today - what is VW accomplishing, exactly?

Unless you actually believe that this campaign pushes the “re-set” button for the American consumer and everything is now beautiful and wonderful again for VW thanks to a cartoonish character named “Max,” I would say the campaign accomplishes a big fat zero.

VW’s hip and cool advertising may help pump-up CP+B’s already overblown and overhyped reputation, and it may give the ad critics something to write about on a slow day, but once again it does nothing for the VW brand in this country, and it does nothing to dissuade me from thinking that VW’s German overlords are just flat-out incapable of figuring out the American market or VW’s place in it. Not to mention the fact that VW marketers seem to be deathly afraid of being framed as being “unhip” themselves, because they can’t seem to say no to their ad agency to save their lives.

After the “Das Auto” spots run their course on TV and on YouTube, and after the print component (much of it flat-out offensive, by the way) disappears from the magazines, newspapers and Internet, then what?

VW will be left with a series of products that are overpriced for their image in the U.S. market - while perpetually reaching too far into Audi and BMW territory - and their dealers will be left scratching their heads realizing that the hipness of the campaign and the “buzz” of the moment have resulted in little or no meaningful increase in sales to speak of.

In other words, same as it ever was.
Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday.
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