Volkswagen Looks to the '60s to Find a Way Forward After the Emissions Scandal

First work for the automaker from Johannes Leonardo

Volkswagen and its new agency, Johannes Leonardo, are trying to move ahead following the automaker's devastating 2015 emissions scandal. To do so, they've decided first to look back—way back—to the music of Simon & Garfunkel and even its own legendary print advertising of the 1960s. 

A new video unveiled Wednesday, set to "The Sound of Silence," addresses the emissions scandal with audio snippets of news stories talking about it. Dark and brooding, the spot focuses on a VW engineer who's literally trying to work his way out of the brand's problems. 

At the end, the darkness lifts—thanks to a new VW vehicle that could brighten the company's prospects in the wake of its costly wrongdoing. 

Notably, there is no official apology in the ad. After all, VW says, the company has been saying sorry for months. 

"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," said Scott Keogh, president and CEO, Volkswagen Group of America. "We have a responsibility to do better, to be greater and we intend to shoulder that responsibility."

The vehicle at the end of the spot is the I.D. Buzz, a forthcoming electric version of VW's Microbus, due to hit the market in 2022. The I.D. Buzz is also featured in a print ad headlined "Lemonade," which plays off the classic "Lemon" ad that Doyle Dane Bernbach created during VW's advertising heyday in the '60s, when it revolutionized the sales pitch. 

"It's the best thing to make of a lemon," says copy on the new ad. "And a small reminder that even the sourest situation can be turned into something sweet." 

The campaign, called "Rebirth," is artfully crafted. But as with a lot of mea culpa advertising, the transition to redemption feels awfully sudden. The craft can even backfire, in a way, as it can be interpretated as literally glossing over the issues. 

That said, the proof will be less in the company's advertising and more in its actions. Before the scandal, VW had not been as quick as its competitors in developing zero-emissions vehicles. The settlement with the U.S. government all but forced it to try to catch up—with a $50 billion escalation of its electric fleet in the works. 

"This brand platform we are launching with Volkswagen will act as a north star for the company to ultimately transform their business," said Jan Jacobs, co-founder and chief creative officer of Johannes Leonardo. "We're embarking on arguably the most important chapter in the history of one of the world's best advertisers. We are honored to be part of it."

The story could eventually become one of redemption. But this is just the very beginning of that road.

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards and the founding editor of Muse by Clio.