It’s ironic that the man who said ‘the most powerful element in advertising is the truth’, was the same man who put Volkswagen on the road to success some sixty years ago.
Probably a good thing then, that Bill Bernbach, joint-creator of Volkswagen’s earliest and most memorable advertising, isn’t around to witness the car crash that the brand has recently become.
Bernbach knew that the strongest advertising asset of any brand is the truth behind it. The sole differentiator, which sets it apart from all those ‘me-too’ offerings.
For much of my time behind the wheel, VW’s truth was its reliability, which we all thought felt credible. Later, it became ‘unbelievable value’, which again we believed. And more recently, it evolved into the compelling ‘Clean Diesel’.
Except this time, the truth wasn’t true. TDI Clean Diesel was a lie. A cynical, calculated deception. Obviously, VW have sinned royally. But what does lying mean in advertising terms? What should VW have done?
You can see why they lied. And why they did it in the USA. Their product couldn’t function within stringent American regulations and still be a fun ride, so they elaborately faked the first bit – on 11 million vehicles.
At that point, the lie was born, and it was over to their ad agency to, albeit inadvertently, disseminate it.
Although those outside the industry find it hard to believe, adfolk adore the truth. It’s far easier to write an ad that’s unequivocally true, rather than one riddled with weasels. Although this may not attract your sympathy, I am sure the ad people who worked on Clean Diesel believed it was yet another clear, honed, and above all, true VW proposition. They will be as outraged as the customers they unintentionally deceived, because this event has perhaps irreversibly damaged a brand considered sacred (well, in ad circles, anyway).
When a brand crosses the line and wilfully lies, as Volkswagen is experiencing, things backfire on a massive scale. Instead of Bernbach’s truth, it’s the lie which becomes the most powerful element in everything they say and do. If you’d run a poll before this scandal broke, asking ‘what does Volkswagen stand for?’, you’d have received answers such as ‘cleanliness’, and ‘environmental awareness’. Today, the answers would be ‘lies’, ‘deception’, and so on. Right now, anyone driving a VW TDI must be thinking, ‘I’m driving a lie’.
There is nothing advertising can do for VW right now, or for the foreseeable future. Advertising has a nasty habit of exacerbating a bad situation. Think of all those cringeworthy ads about trust that the banks put out after they were rumbled.
It’s too late this time around, but Volkswagen should have been honest. With themselves. With the regulators. With their customers. With their dealers. They should have come clean and said, ‘our diesels can’t meet the US regulations and still be exciting to drive, so we’re going to stop making them’.
Insanity? No, just plain honesty. Yes, it would have cost them many billions of dollars to rationalise their range to petrol-only. Then again, another uncomfortable truth we all have to face is the slow but sure u-turn European politicians are currently making on diesels, having previously told us to buy them. It could be that diesels will eventually be phased out anyway, and VW could have led that crusade by recognising the truth and being the first to cease their production.
In any case, rationalisation could have turned out to be a relatively small price to pay, compared to what they will now lose, not just for going against their former mentor’s wise words, but for brazenly going off in the opposite direction.