Ad Report Card

Wham! Bam! Buy a VW, Ma’am!

The violent new Jetta ads.

The spot: Four young people are riding in a Volkswagen Jetta. They’re engaged in some lighthearted banter when BLAM! An SUV runs a red light and smashes into their driver’s side door. Airbags deploy. Glass shatters. We fade out, and then fade back in on the Jetta’s passengers, unharmed, standing next to the badly damaged car as police sirens wail. “Holy sh-,” says one of the passengers, with the profanity cut off before she can finish pronouncing it. “Safe happens,” reads the on-screen slogan, and then some text tells us that the Jetta has received the “highest government side impact rating.”

VW: Movie This Volkswagen spot—along with another one just like it—has prompted massive amounts of reader mail. Some of you are terrified, some of you are appalled, and some of you think the ads are absolutely brilliant. Personally, I don’t find these to be works of surpassing genius, but I do think they’re pretty sharp.

For one, the execution is remarkable. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more realistic depiction of a car crash. The spots capture that out-of-nowhere moment at the heart of all accidents, when everyday mundanity flashes into a hyper-intense freak-out explosion. The ads also hint at an accident’s aftermath: hours of jittery detachment. Anyone who’s been in a car crash will recognize this mood triptych.

VW: Like Visually, I love that they’ve avoided clichéd slow-mo footage of headlights exploding, glass shards floating through the crisp night air, and so forth. This choice reminds me of my other favorite car-crash scene, from Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich: In a single, unadorned, middle-distance shot (with no foreshadowing whatsoever), we see Julia Roberts’ car get violently crunched as it rolls through an intersection. The Volkswagen spot is similarly stripped-down. It’s a brutally frank look at the physical chaos that results when an SUV enters your sedan without an invitation.

So, the execution is fantastic, but what about the concept? Why a campaign that centers on safety? It seems particularly odd given that a recent VW campaign was all about aggressive, high-speed driving, and finding your inner “fast.” Now we’re asked to contemplate airbags and government safety ratings? Granted, the “Make Friends with Your Fast” campaign was for the pocket-rocket GTI, while this “Safe Happens” campaign is for the slightly more grown-up Jetta. But still, I’m feeling some … whiplash.

According to Kurt Schneider, general manager for creative content at Volkswagen, the idea was to find a fresh way to pitch safety. “Safety has mostly been portrayed in a more rational, family-oriented way,” he says. “This was an attempt to reach 18- to 34-year-olds [the target market for the Jetta] by presenting safety in a more emotional and dramatic light. We show young people out with friends, and the message is about protecting the people who are close to you.”

I like this argument. But there’s a reason that safety traditionally gets pitched at families and not at the childless. Most parents are obsessively fixated on their kids’ well-being, while most fancy-free young folks don’t give safety much thought. In urging young people to take heed, Volkswagen seems to be fighting human nature.

Their plan, obviously, is to get us totally freaked about car crashes. And, judging by the post-traumatic e-mails I’m getting from readers, that plan appears to be working. Since these spots are filmed mostly from inside the cars and feature likable, attractive-but-not-too-attractive characters, the viewer is led to feel like part of the gang. When the accidents hit, we feel like victims, too. If being drawn into these violent clips doesn’t get you thinking about auto fatalities, nothing will.

The question is whether this will translate into Volkswagen sales. Will young people 1) actually start prioritizing safety in their car shopping, and 2) if so, will those people looking for safety now decide that VW is the answer? I’ve always found safety an oddly slippery brand attribute. Every carmaker throws its safety claims out there, and they all seem to wash right over me. Blah blah front-impact blah blah stars blah side curtain blah government rating. Volvo has its safety rep all sewn up, but I’ve no idea whether Volvos are in fact any safer than other cars. And, despite these ads, I’ve no idea whether Volkswagens are, either.

Grade: B. I’m not sure Jetta’s target demo can be convinced to care about safety. But I’m thoroughly convinced that these ads will haunt their dreams and keep the Volkswagen brand at the front of their thoughts. That’s half the battle.

As for the appropriateness of the ads, and all the outraged reaction: They don’t really bother me much. Volkswagen says it’s trying to keep the spots from airing before 9 p.m., so little kids are less likely to see them. And part of me thinks it’s healthy for us to contemplate our mortality during the breaks in our sitcoms.

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