Ad Report Card

Fast Times

VW’s nasty new spokesdemon.

The Spot: A young guy and his girlfriend are driving at high speed. Her hair is whipping around in her face. “Honey, can we roll the window up a little bit?” she asks. “No,” says the guy. Cut to a frightening little onyx-black gargoyle, perched on the back seat. “My Fast likes the windows down,” the creature says in a demonic growl. “Down! Down!” it yells, though its mouth does not move. The unfortunate woman continues to plead her case, talking through her swirling hair. “Sweetie,” interrupts the boyfriend, “it’s really hard for me to enjoy the sound of the engine with all that yakking.” We see the small back-seat beastie again. “Sometimes,” says the evil basso voice, “my Fast doesn’t get along with my girlfriend.” Tag line: “The 200-horsepower GTI. Make Friends With Your Fast.” (Click here to see the clip.)

Volkswagen’s new Fast campaign

A young man hears a voice in his head, which spurs him to drive recklessly and to mistreat his girlfriend. I have news: That’s not his “Fast” he’s making friends with. It’s his “testosterone.”

Let me say upfront that, while as individuals I’m certain they are lovely people, men under the age of 25 comprise my least favorite advertising demographic. Marketing directed at this cohort tends to exhibit: an adversarial stance toward women; a thoughtless disregard for societal harmony; supremely awful taste in food and clothing; and general boneheadedness. Bob Garfield, writing recently in Advertising Age, referred to the “beer-pong demographic.” (I liked this phrase a lot—until I realized that just last week I was playing a racket sport with alcohol on the line. Seriously: As we speak, my vanquished squash partner owes me four dark-rum mojitos.)

I’m trying hard to make peace with my ageism, because—given the population bulge in this demo—we can expect a steady stream of young-dude-pandering for the next several years (cf: Office Pirates; body sprays). It’s renewed torture for us underrepresented gen-Xers. Just as we’ve learned to stifle our resentment of baby boomer-centric ads, along come the millennials.

As for this spot, it’s funny, only a tiny bit offensive, and totally appropriate to the product at hand. The GTI is—as Volkswagen eagerly noted on the phone with me—a “hot hatch” and a “pocket rocket.” It’s the kind of car that appeals to hyper-aggressive young knuckleheads. And so the other three spots in the campaign center on 1) speeding, 2) reckless driving in inclement weather, and 3) more female-hating. (“My Fast makes it hard to have a relationship,” says the demon voice in this last spot, after a guy exiles his girlfriend from his GTI because he’d “rather not carry the extra weight.”) This strategy makes perfect sense when a car’s main selling point is horsepower-per-dollar.

But there’s a problem. According to Kurt Schneider, GM of creative content for Volkswagen, these ads are also meant to “reinvigorate the emotion behind the whole VW brand” and act as a “halo” for a revamped marketing effort. The hot-hatch GTI is now considered nothing less than “the soul of Volkswagen.”

Which would be great if VW’s customer base were comprised entirely of Sigma Chi brothers. But what happens when it comes time to market the Jetta (to sensible grown-ups of both sexes) or the Passat wagon (to families)?

These new spots are a radical departure for the Volkswagen vibe. Remember the legendary “Da Da Da” ad, in which a pair of amiable slackers puttered around in their Golf on a lazy afternoon? “It fits your life,” went the tag line, “or your complete lack thereof.” Or what about the Cabrio spot that featured Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”? Two girls and two guys drove aimlessly around on a dreamy evening (friendly inter-gender relations!), eventually arriving at a fratty party but concluding they were too cool to actually enter it.

Those were the salad days of VW advertising, and those two spots in particular rank among the best car ads in recent memory. The agency that made them, Arnold Worldwide, was unceremoniously dumped this past fall after a decade-long relationship with Volkswagen. I concede that of late Arnold’s VW ads had grown a little flat. Still, I can’t help but prefer the warmth and humanity of those older spots. I’d much rather hang with their laid-back, quirky protagonists than with these chumpish GTI speed-burners.

VW’s new agency is the smoking-hot Crispin Porter + Bogusky, recently named Ad Age’s “Agency of the Year.” (Disclosure: I had a previous beef with them.) This “Make Friends With Your Fast” campaign is CP+B’s first effort for Volkswagen, and it’s evident that they’ve chosen to steer the brand in a whole new direction.

Well, not completely new—there is some precedent. CP+B’s most famous calling card is the “King” character in its Burger King campaign. The little “Fast” demon in these VW ads owes a major debt to this previous creation. Both the King and the Fast have impassive, inanimate faces. Both are creepy advocates for their cause (the King silently hands people Whoppers; the Fast telepathically urges people to be dickheads). Just as CP+B sold Halloween masks with the King’s visage, VW is now giving away little Fast statuettes to anyone who buys a GTI. (The agency has apparently decided that America loves swag.)

CP+B’s employee handbook says the firm thinks advertising is “anything that makes our clients famous.” No doubt these new VW spots are grabbing a ton of attention, much as the King did when he first appeared. But the jury’s still out on whether CP+B can build a broad-based brand image that appeals to lots of different demographics—instead of just launching a funny fad that thrills the beer-pongers while repulsing everyone else.

Grade: A-. These are terrific ads for the GTI, and I’m certain the car’s sales will spike. Schneider says new ads for the Jetta will come out in April, and I’ll withhold judgment on the overall VW campaign until then.