Volkswagen. Maybe it's our failed attempt to learn German. But this last few years, when we see the brand name, we think of its literal translation: The people's car. It's a brand predicated on the absence of one, because its core value was accessible utility: A reliable mode of transport at low cost. One step sideways from the city bus, without the driver and the strangers.
These thoughts sprang to mind while watching "Here," Volkwagen France's latest campaign, composed of seven films by DDB Paris. Each ends with the tagline "Here is the greatest thing we can offer," and the ads vary in how they pivot to that message.
Recently, while considering WhatsApp's latest work, we observed that there's a shared cadence to some of the ads coming out presently. They are slow-moving and meditative, inspired more by the minutiae in a moment than the frenetic "if-this, then-that" of interaction-driven advertising.
It's work produced as if in recovery from some sort of stimulant, more interested in unfolding under a patient gaze than triggering a knee-jerk click.
"Like most car manufacturers, Volkswagen France had to come back after slowing down almost to a standstill in the last few months," Alexander Kalchev, the agency's executive creative director, tells Muse.
"The brand created a generous offer called 'Better Days,' which included a three-year warrantee and a free three-month leasing option. But it was a delicate task to communicate it without veering into opportunism, or an overpromising 'rose-tinted glasses' campaign. So we felt that the best way was to strip everything down to the simplest, most universal message: Here is the simple stuff. It matters the most. It's the greatest thing we can offer you. And it all clicked, because it felt very Volkswagen."
Much has already been said about how enforced confinement affects perceptions of time. The everyday repetition that some have experienced for months, walking through the same rooms and interacting with the same people, can render moments interminable, which can feel either tortuous or transcendent. Meanwhile, for frontline workers, time speeds up.
You can feel the effects of the former here, how that elongation has seeped into the creative industry, perhaps temporarily. But I'm also interested in how time folds in on itself, drawing long echoes through human experience.
Volkswagen was born in a period of transition, not unlike the one we're in now. The company was conceived in 1937 by the German government, and was integral to one of Hitler's promises—ensuring every German could own an affordable car.
But World War II started before mass production could, so its factory was repurposed for military equipment. This made it a consistent Allied bomber target; by the time Europe was liberated, Volkwagen was a ruin, little more than an ambition deferred, then smashed.
But somebody saw promise there. The British supervised its rebuilding, and by 1946, mass production of the People's Car resumed. Three years in, when its ownership was transferred to the West German government and the state of Lower Saxony, over half of German passenger cars were VWs.
It penetrated the U.S. in 1955, where its flagship design, the Beetle, designed by Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche), received a sour reception for obvious reasons.
You know the rest, don't you?
Volkswagen hired the original Doyle Dane Bernbach in '59. "Think Small" and "Lemon" were born. The rest is pop-culture history.
And here we are today, watching DDB Paris usher VW France through another change in the wind, one less about mobility than about why any of us even bother.
"For many, the period we are going through has been an opportunity to become aware of what really matters," art director Mickaël Jacquemin says. "We tend to go back to basics and the simple things in life. So, for a post-lockdown communication, we thought it would be interesting to go back to a basic truth about cars: They are here to offer us freedom of movement. The opportunity to go where we really want to be."
A return to source: Volkswagen saying this is about you, not us, without the nationalist undertones. Indeed, this message isn't even for its home nation.
There is something so seductive about this story arc, just 17 years shy of being a century old: The people's car. What it means, who conceived it, who it was for (and who it was not for). Then, in a volatile dice-toss of history, watching that idea jump—for ideas are nothing if not promiscuous, no patriotism there—and mutate into something far more inclusive, bigger than intended. (VW's tag in the U.S. nowadays is "Drive bigger.") Finally arriving at a place in time, where mobility is in constant tension with remaining in place. Negotiating the merits of both. Wondering which of the camps freedom actually sits in.
"We wanted to catch the extraordinary in these very ordinary, small slices of life. The kind of happiness that isn't linked to any possession or particular event: just being here, and now," explains copywriter Benoît Oulhen.
"There was something humble and human about it. Doing a car commercial that isn't about the car, but rather what it does for us. And we liked the idea of praising 'here,' stillness and attachment, when what we sell is mobility," he continues.
This isn't just a story about Volkswagen. It's also about what DDB Paris inherited from its American parent: knowing when to zag instead of zig. It's to Volkswagen's credit that, even now, with the "people's car" among the biggest auto conglomerates in the world, it still knows to nod on ideas that are more about others than about itself.
It still knows that, in the end, what is here is all we get.
"Here" is being broadcast on TV and digital media through the month of May.
Executive Creative Director: Alexander Kalchev
Copywriter: Benoît Oulhen
Art Director: Mickaël Jacquemin
Planning: Loïc Morando
Agency: Alban Callet, Axel Renaudin, Léa Villani,
Volkswagen: Gerrit Heimberg, Jean-Manuel
Caparros, Alexandra Tacconi
Head of TV Production: Corinne Persch
TV Producer / Post-producer: Florence Gabet
Post Production: Mikros