April 12, 2008

Say Vhat?! Do the People Want a VW with a German Accent?

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC + Husband of VW Beetle Owner
He sits there before his microphone, round and retro, emanating the cuteness that made him an icon in America. On this occasion, he’s in somber black, though he’s usually seen decked out like a jelly bean. And then he speaks…

And out comes the voice of a German man.
And he’s saying, “I know vhat ze people vant.”

Yeah, right…

I usually applaud and bow down before the work of ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. For VW, they brought over the daring quirkiness they honed with the MINI Cooper. (Since Crispin ditched that account, MINI’s ads have been rather uninspired, even banal.) I love Crispin’s 2006 “Unpimp Your Ride” ads for the VW GTI, with the German engineer from the hood (“Een da haus!”) and his dominatrix assistant, Helga…

But the talking Beetle?
Can we have Helga back?

Now, mascots are wildly effective in advertising, whether they’re human (yes, Jared of Subway, you’re a mascot) or a talking gecko (do I need to mention that I’m referring to GEICO?). So why not a talking car?

When I first heard about this new VW campaign, I thought it was brilliant. I grew up watching Herbie the Love Bug, and I always saw the Beetle as having a personality. In an industry filled with such drab soulless lumps of sheet metal as the Camry, a car with personality goes a long way. But I’m not so sure about this.

First, there’s the issue of the voice. It didn’t bug me (no pun intended), but my wife, a proud Beetle owner, was expecting cuter and, well, groovier, as in the flower-child era the Beetle represents.

Then there’s the presumption that this German import knows what Americans want, and that might irk some people, even if many of the statements are user-generated. On the VW site, there’s some pseudo-participatory democracy, with polls submitted and answered by users. Some are pretty funny…

Others are more controversial, touching on subjects like private school vouchers. Or this one: “86% of the people want to tie management compensation to company performance.” Let’s see how that goes over at VW USA. Or at Crispin.

Then there’s the cat issue…

Uh, nein. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, pet cats outnumber pet dogs in the U.S. 88.3 million to 74.8 million. Indeed, most VW Beetle owners are women, and most women prefer cats. So is it wise for our German dude to be making that assertion? (Rule #1 of marketing: know your customer.)

I can’t say I know what “The People” want on this issue, but I seriously doubt that this new incarnation of the Beetle will have a whole lot of mileage.

Update: Not only did this campaign have a short life, but so did Crispin’s tenure with VW.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

2 Responses

  1. Here, here. The “people” say (or at least I do) Bring back the Nick Drake inspired VW campaigns!

    I know it was for the Cabrio, but it was still a better ad from VW.

  2. I like the commercials, I have a 69 painted like herbie the love bug and I’m going to have ot painted to look just like the one in the commercial, I think it looks way vintage with the black and chrome and white wall tires… and im a girl lol… My insight on the comm. It would be just another car comm. if they didn’t add the “somber bug”, The car is always off to the side, its black so it doesnt jump out at you but gives you just enough for the viewer to remember how much “everyone” always loved the bug(VW). If it were a jellybean color your focus would be on that and not the new mini van etc..I loved it..

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