Sohn: Volkswagen ad brings light to darkness

Sohn: Volkswagen ad brings light to darkness

June 11th, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

'Hello, Darkness, my old friend.

I've come to talk with you again.'

— Simon and Garfunkel

If you were watching cable news recently, or the NBA playoffs, you may have have seen Volkswagen's new ad about its electric vehicle production — some of which will happen in Chattanooga.

No, we're not talking about the pro-UAW vote ads from the United Auto Workers or the anti-UAW vote ads from a so-called business-funded group called Southern Momentum. Those ads are sadly wasted money: VW workers can and should make up their own minds about unionization.

We're talking about a corporate VW ad owning up to its dubious history of diesel emission fraud and looking for redemption. We're talking about an ad that is not only pure genius — it's inspiring.

The ad opens with the sound of a door slamming. Then a fuzzy radio plays a newsreel: " some more details incoming involving Volkswagen in the growing scandal. The world's largest car manufacturer under scrutiny in the emissions "

A tired-looking engineer sits in the dark, alternately holding his head and sketching. A guitar begins the lonely intro to the classic Simon and Garfunkel folk song, "Sounds of Silence." As the words and harmony swell, the engineer struggles — in snatches of darkness — until he flips on a light box and sees a schematic drawing of an old VW bus.

The music crescendos, and welding sparks fly.

"When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light that split the night. "

Slowly, the headlights of an all new electric bus slide out of the darkness.

The screen goes dark — save these words in white:

"In the darkness, we found the light. Introducing a new era of electric driving. VW."

It's brilliant. And if you ever drove a VW bus in the 1960s or '70s or even the '80s, your heart will swell at about minute 1:06 of this 1.43-minute film. (You can watch Hello Light/ID. Buzz on YouTube at bit.ly/2MCaszn.)

"Every negative has a positive," reads the explainer under the video — which first aired June 5 to promote electric cars and rehabilitate the company's badly tarnished image after the diesel cheating scandal broke in the fall of 2015.

To be clear, Volkswagen's diesel emissions scam settlement a year later required the company to build electric vehicles — and to build some of them here in Chattanooga. But in a statement, Scott Keogh, CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, clarified the thinking behind the new ad campaign.

"We've offered thousands of apologies. For us, this wasn't about the apology — we've been doing that. This is the reassessment of the brand, of the company, and how we want to move forward. We wouldn't be capable of telling that story without first having this moment to clear the air, to make the pivot. We couldn't pretend it didn't happen. This campaign is for all of those we disappointed, all of those who stayed with us, those who worked like crazy to keep us moving forward and for all of those who stopped caring. We have a responsibility to do better, to be greater and we intend to shoulder that responsibility."

In Chattanooga, the story is about more than cars.

On July 15, 2008, the Chattanooga Times Free Press published a special edition celebrating the announcement that Volkswagen would build its first U.S. automobile assembly plant in Chattanooga, bringing an expected 2,000 jobs to the Scenic City. The headline, in huge bold letters, was "It's Chattanooga!"

Here we are nearly 11 years later, and the German automaker now anticipates rolling out its first Volkswagen electric vehicle, the ID Crozz, off of a Chattanooga assembly line late next year, Keogh says.

The Chattanooga VW plant already had added a second assembly line, bringing the number of jobs here today to 3,500. Now this planned third enterprise here — an $800 million electric vehicle assembly facility — is generating an additional 1,000 jobs. What's more, VW expects to spend $50 billion on developing electric cars, autonomous driving and new mobility services worldwide by 2023. And it all centers on our Chattanooga plant — Chattanooga jobs. It's Chattanooga, again!

Cleantechnica.com praised VW's effort and its ad, but questioned: "Can a leopard change its spots? Will Volkswagen be successful in its attempt to rebrand itself and win back U.S. customers?"

It has before. After World War II, VW had to overcome the negative associations between it and the regime of Adolf Hitler to sell its VW Beetle.

"Keeping up with the Kremplers" was one of a series of ads that helped: Mr. Jones and Mr. Krempler were neighbors in identical houses. Each had $3,000. Mr. Jones used his money to buy a $3,000 car, the ad intoned. Mr. Krempler used his $3,000 to buy "a new refrigerator, a new range, a new washer, a new dryer, a record player, two new television sets and — a brand new Volkswagen."

In mid-May, Keogh talked in another YouTube video — this one four minutes long — about VW's future with EVs and in Chattanooga.

"This is the people's car company, and like we did with the Beetle in the 50s and 60s, we will be the company that makes EVs accessible to millions, not just to millionaires." He added: "Nobody has a greater responsibility to make electrification happen in light of the disastrous diesel issue."

We've said it before, but it bears repeating.

Atonement is sweet.

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