Voltage, an arm of advertising agency DDB that's responsible solely for Volkswagen marketing, has announced a full investigation will be taking place into the production of ad released on Instagram last week, after it was suggested racist messaging was planted on purpose.
In case you missed it, VW ran a (now deleted) 10-second clip on Instagram, promoting its new Golf. The ad followed an interracial couple in Argentina and mimicked the style of a recent Tik Tok trend. But the use of a giant white hand flicking a darker-skinned figure away from its car and into a cafe sparked outrage and disbelief – especially because the café name translates into German as 'Little Coloniser'.
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Not only that, but the white hand is also seen giving what looks an awful lot like a white power salute. And then the 'Der neue Golf' ('The new Golf') tagline seems to fade to reveal what is all-too close to the N-word in German. It's such a brazen string of messaging, it's no wonder VW's original Instagram response claiming that the public misunderstood (opens in new tab) the ad didn't wash.
Now, after a series of apologies from VW (opens in new tab), Voltage has launched an internal investigation, with CEO Toby Pschorr asserting in a statement (opens in new tab): "If there is any evidence that an employee or supplier deliberately conceived and planted racist or bigoted messages within our communication, it will lead to an immediate dismissal and legal repercussions." The agency's website has been down over the weekend.
VW has started its own investigation into the processes that could have allowed this to happen, with a statement posted on LinkedIn (opens in new tab) and Twitter (opens in new tab) taking full responsibility and emphasizing their horror – as well as referencing the "historical origins and the guilt of our company during the Nazi regime,". It then going on to say "that is precisely why we resolutely oppose all forms of hatred, slander/propaganda, and discrimination."
Twitter users are incredulous, both at the initial ad and at the cry of sabotage from VW and partners, with some calling into question the logic of using the word 'sabotage' in the context of a design project this big:
C'mon @vw 'sabotage'! seriously? This is racism and we all know there are multiple people working on the approval stage for these ads, both inside your company and the ad agencies. https://t.co/F1G9mJQQbeMay 25, 2020
It isn't the first time VW has landed itself in advertising hot water for a potentially offensive tone. In 2013, a Super Bowl advert was pulled for showing a white man with a stereotypical Jamaican accent. Then last year saw two incidents – one for an advert portraying gender stereotypes, and another when the CEO used a phrase reminiscent of a Nazi-era slogan.
It's hard to believe that a 10-second clip selling a car could get it so wrong, especially when in the hands of an experienced marketer such as VW. And whether or not there are sinister forces at play for VW in this case, the deleted advert will certainly go down as one of the most controversial moments of branding we've ever seen.