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Volkswagen’s Crash Ads Spark Controversy

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David Kiley, of Business Week Online, likes them. Mackenzie Dawson, of the New York Post Online Edition, isn’t enthusiastic about them.

The prevailing question seems to be, do the Volkswagen crash-n-carry sudden-impact ads sell cars?

This remains to be seen. What is already being seen and heard are thousands of Internet forum messages and water cooler conversations around the country both for and against the ads themselves. Cited by opponents as frightening and violent (Ms. Dawson says they leave viewers “confused, shaken, drooling, and trembling”), proponents say the all-important message of safe driving and vehicle safety is driven home. Conceding the effectiveness of the safety tactic, Laura Ries, president of marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries, says it doesn’t work for Volkswagen. Dennis Virag, president of the Automotive Consulting Group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, disagrees. Virag says, “Times have changed. Safety does sell.”

Curiously, those opposed to Volkswagen’s ads don’t seem as revved up over the latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that reported what causes the most crashes on U.S. roads. You’d think anyone who is the least bit vocal about fictional wrecks would have something to say about real wrecks. (American society has a low threshold for pain when it’s not real. In another similar “don’t remind us of reality” moment, many went high and to the right over a cartoon of a wounded U.S. service member while the real deal lay about in Landstuhl and Bethesda — still unvisited by the majority of those who took issue with the cartoon.)

Almost 80 percent of crashes occur within three seconds of the driver becoming distracted. Driver distraction accounts for 65 percent of near-crashes. Cell phone use tops the list of driver distractions while reading and eating follows close behind. Eighteen to 21-year-olds are four times more likely to crash and near crash than their over-35 counterparts. With so many dangerous drivers on the road (let’s face it: someone who doesn’t know he/she isn’t sitting in a waiting room is a dangerous driver), it’s no wonder the most sought-after feature for new car buyers is the safety package. Before considering heated seats and sound systems, consumers are opting in for everything from side-curtain air bags to active braking.

I’m still waiting for my dream public service announcement: A law enforcement officer comes upon a wreck and surmises who was at fault. He reaches through the window of the non-fatally-wounded but bleeding driver-at-fault while he’s still in his car. The officer pulls the guy’s wallet from his pocket, says “I’ll just take this!” as he yanks the driver’s license out, and flings the wallet back in the car. DMV officials, with tools in hand, confiscate the license plate. The tow truck driver removes the driver from his car, sets him on the side of he road, and tows the car. An ambulance drives off without the injured driver-at-fault. “Big Yellow Taxi” plays as the announcement fades to black.

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • to add to diana’s dream psa, i’d like to see the state police call in portable car crushers for people stopped for reckless (speeding, weaving, inattention, yakking on phone, etc.) driving. snag their licencse, make ’em get out of the car and then convert the car into a pancake.

    also, charge them for it.

  • I just gotta say I LOVE VW’s commercials with Peter Stormare. Those are genius!

  • no kidding!

    german engineering in the house!!

    i swear, it made want to rush right out and buy the car.

  • i got to see a new jetta last year (new? not yet out? i dunno) covered in black tarp running around the back roads of my neighborhood here in stuttgart…
    i saw a covered mercedez the same day…

    i had just picked up my husband from a deployment and he was resting…i saw the covered mercedez and asked him why it was covered…he sat straight up and said “it’s a test car! turn around! freakin’ turn around!”

    durangos don’t just “freakin’ turn around” but i did catch up before it made it on the autobahn — and then of course there was no way to keep up…

    i’ll tell you what’s freaky, though — smart cars…they crack me up and worry me all at the same time…there’s no way every wreck in one of those things isn’t a fatality…

  • sal m

    i am a loss for words with regards to how/why some people are offended – or get scared – by the accurate depiction of an automobile accident in order for a car manufacturer to advertise that they have a safe vehicle.

    i guess people somehow feel safer if they can ignore reality and pretend that certain things don’t/won’t happen to them if they aren’t aware that they can happen…is that it?

  • Bill

    VW’s ads would have you believe they are the safest cars. Not necessarily so. Take a look at all test results before falling for advertising crapola.
    Many other cars on the market have as much, if not more “safety” built in (and standard, not optional).
    VW is grasping at straws in America to sell cars. It’s doing all kinds of “wild and crazy” things to get attention. They have even brought back the “Rabbit” nameplate on the poor-selling Golf.
    Instead of offering cars that sell themselves, VW like, GM and Ford is using gimmicks to move their junk.

  • There is a relatively simple solution ot the cellphone-car problem: It should be legislated that all cellphones be sold with a mandatory hands-free kit – no exceptions. Currently it is generally offered as an option, available for another $25 or so but most people can’t be bothered. Just take away their choice.

    It will raise the price of the cellphones overall but it will probably pay for itself in reduced insurance claims.

  • sorry deano, just talking on the phone is enough of a distraction to pose a significant danger…
    cellphones and cars simply don’t go together safely…

  • I thought it would have been funny if the outrage was that the two drivers were a black man and a woman, implying that they get in accidents and us white males don’t.

  • i’ve only seen two of the commercials; both drivers were male, one white and one black…

  • Didn’t the guy and girl crash into each other?

  • Bliffle

    “Almost 80 percent of crashes occur within three seconds of the driver becoming distracted. Driver distraction accounts for 65 percent of near-crashes.”

    I’m not surprised. One of the things I find astounding is that so many people seem to think it is OK to distract the driver with their senseless prattle: take my wife, please. Personally, I pull over to the roadside when that starts, or when the cellphone rings. I push the answer button, tell the caller I’m driving, pull over and answer the call. Whether the caller is expected or unsolicited, this works well. If it’s an expected call, the person appreciates that in a moment I’ll be able to give them my attention. It also reduces frivolous calls without the irritation of a reprimand. If it’s an unsolicited call, the pause lends weight to my response. For example, if it’s one of those people trying to sell me a loan and I tell them, honestly, that I have 3 loan brokers I’ve worked with for several years, or that I’m tied up and can’t consider them for 3 months, they pay attention and don’t call me back unsolicited because they know I gave them enough attention to pull over and didn’t just blow them off while driving.

    As for the ads, I think they’re excellent. Isn’t this a better approach than draping a skimpily-clad model across the car?

  • I’m kind of surprised that the accident in the commercials is the reason for alarm. I really like the commercials but has anyone noticed how they END?

    Person: Holy…
    Text: Safe Happens.

    I would suspect that people would get more upset at the obvious play on words.

  • Marie

    I was involved in a bad car accident, that left me partially disabled (bad) for several years, and I’m STILL trying to get over the post traumatic stress disorder that it left me with.

    Being that our accident was a “TBone” as in the commerical.. I really, REALLY hate the commercials. I avoid movies that I know have car wrecks in them, because I don’t enjoy the flashbacks, nightmares, blackouts, and everything else. That’s a WHOLE lot easier to avoid with MOVIES, than with a commercial.

  • Michelle

    Just like Maria, I was involved in a terrible “t-bone” accident. I saw the commercial for the first time last night, and it threw me into a panic attack…I was bawling involuntarily and had difficulty breathing.

    Sure, the car may be safe, but I don’t think terrifying the consumer is the way to sell.

  • Marie

    You know, if it was a PSA or something for drunk driving (I’m pretty sure that the person who hit me was intoxicated), I’d hate it, but it probably wouldn’t piss me off.

    It pisses me off to no end that a company is looking to profit from provoking these kind of responses.

  • Has anyone noticed that these are “Real,” staged accidents? The “actors” have the real airbag burns on their faces. That is what makes if effective for me.

    I have also been in an accident with airbag deployment. A grandmother in a Crown Victoria, got confused and turned left into oncoming traffic head on, into us. My father, who was driving and I both walked away from the accedent, but probably only because we were in full size truck. Which out-weighed (barely) the Crown Vic.

    This ad startled me, but also reminded me that I’m driving around without an airbag (older honda accord), and I’m 25, the target audience of VW’s ad campaign. And it is working for me, I’m selling my car and looking for a safer economic car. It might be a VW but I can’t say yet. But as a PSA, the ad works.

  • lucy

    There are dozens of ads on tv showing people driving at outrageous speeds, whizzing past other cars, in short, driving aggressively and dangerously. Why isn’t anybody upset about THOSE ads??? People watch those ads (zoom zoom) and think, yeah baby, let me drive like THAT! and guess what..a bunch of them do. They are out there every morning when I’m driving to the park and ride, because please God let me not have to commute with those bozos every morning. So if you want to be indignant, go after the ads that glorify unsafe driving.

    A Jetta saved my life, by the way. It was totaled; I was not. (One of those distracted drivers hit me head on, crossing the center line.) You bet I bought another Jetta.

  • Juan Carlos Ortega

    Saludos from Puerto Rico…

    I could not say it better, Lucy. I wonder why glorifying such speed in ads when there is a 65 mph almost all over the nation.

    I neither understand why manufacturing cars able to reach 100+ mph.

    Juan Carlos Ortega
    Bayamon, Puerto Rico

  • Johnny

    The VW ad’s have always been cutting edge…
    I would have loved to have read this page during the “gay” ads.
    The crash ads stick with you, and if VW hadn’t have screwed up the design of the new Jetta 4dr, I’d consider it…
    other than that, car commercials can be more entertaining than a movie, remember when HONDA knew what it was doing with ad’s in the last 80’s?

  • I love the VW ads.

    Lucy hits the nail on the head. The airwaves are full of ads glorifying speed but nothing (until the VW ads) showing what the result of that can be if the driver is unskilled or not paying attention. Far too many drivers drive as if they have no idea what can happen, even at the modest speeds portrayed in the VW ads.

    Dont get me wrong. I LOVE speed. I race cars — on race tracks. I also see a lot of wrecks. I know what can happen. As a result I am about the slowest, most cautious street driver out there. I have actually been passed (across a double yellow line) in a residential 25MPH zone by a woman in a minivan full of kids because I was only going 25MPH. If these ads can make this kind of dim-bulb see the light then they are worth it.

  • Jae

    Like some of the others here, I was also in a t-bone type car accident that very nearly left me dead. The first time I saw this commercial I about had a panic attack. You pretty much relive the entire accident, from the way it felt when your face smashes through the window to the gut wrenching feeling of what it was like to slowly look over at the other people in the car and hope to god they are okay.

    Frankly, I’m not interested in giving my money to Volkswagen if they are going to make commercials like that. Maybe it’s not so bad for someone who’s never been in a bad accident, but for those of us who have, it’s a pretty f-ing cruel commercial.

  • Frank

    I love those ads, it shows how safe they really are,but if a 18 wheeler hit the car…….

  • Frank

    BTW Jae, ive been t-boned by a truck before, and that commerical didn’t make me relive my accident, makes me want a jetta. Don’t go watch a movies, you might die of a heart attack.

  • don’t wish to say

    The ad with the jetta crash is apalling, as well as faulty advertisement.
    In the year 2000 2 young people were killed in a jetta crash with the survival of the 3rd being a miracle.You are falsly inplanting in young peoples minds that if they are in a Jetta they will survive. That is very far from the truth, it isn’t the car its the type of accident they causes the death’s. I would NEVER buy or depend on a jetta for it’s safety!!!!
    Very Sad that you have stooped to these tactics to try to sell cars,

  • Alfonso

    I’m just an ordinary Joe, middle aged guy… been in a few pretty good sized accidents in my younger, “more impatient” years….Volkswagen should seriously re-think these recent “crash” commercials as being a tool for selling their new cars. Watching twisted metal and traumatized car occupants doesn’t really make me want to run and visit a VW showroom. Call me crazy, but the message I’m getting from these commercials is something like….”If I buy one of these, I will probably get into a serious fender bender at some point in time…..these commercials would be more suitable for big name insurance companies, leaning more towards….”Hey, these new VW’s are so safe that we’ll give you a discount on your automobile insurance if you call the 800 number on your screen”. If you don’t believe me, then put the famous wrecked Jetta right inside a VW showroom, in the front of the window, and see how many people come in….here’s an alternative….do more research…..put the findings on DVD and include a copy with every new car, and let the owner peruse at his own convenience….as far as selling new cars, we want to see nice crisp exterior lines, sporty engines, comfortable interiors with all the bells and whistles, lots of chrome and fake wood…..can’t get enough chrome and fake wood trim. Stop the smashing car commercials, how about it?

  • Ron Page

    I wonder why the accidents in both ads impact black guys?

  • To those who are upset by the VW commercials: The tag line (as someone mentioned above) is “Safe Happens”

    Well, as far as commercials go, “Life Happens” Not that I want to diminish any physical or emotional scarring those kinds of accidents leave on a person – still though, directing your displeasure at VW doesn’t make sense.

    What about the couple who suffers a miscarriage, or worse, a stillborn delivery. Next TV commercial is for Pampers or Carnation, and there you have the gorgeous baby all glowing and angelic. That would hurt.

    Or suppose you just ended a relationship, then your hit with the ad for diamonds, or for Ronco’s Romantic Music for Lovers (or some such baloney).

    No one can predict when a reminder of an ugly past event will slap us upside the head. It’s never fun, but life works that way sometimes.

    These ads are supposed to make us think a little harder about being safe. Looking at the big picture, I can’t see the harm in that.

  • Like Frank says I like the ads too but it does depend on the type of crash.

    I’m wondering what the new Volkswagen L1 would look like after a crash test.