A New Beginning for VW, (Maybe)

Can a 90-second commercial redeem the image of the worst corporate failure in recent memory? Perhaps.

Hitler himself ordered the production of their most famous car, the Beetle.

With that black mark on their history, you might think VW would be extra careful about their image. More careful than almost any automaker on the planet.

But if you thought that, you’d be Zehr, Zehr wrong, dear Reader.

Nope.

Instead, the German automaker thought it would be a grand idea to:

  1. Cheat on mileage tests
  2. Lie to the government about it
  3. Use the fraudulent mileage figures to sell cars

These decisions — tone-deaf and hammer-dumb — sullied their already suspect brand almost beyond repair. It would take a miracle to resurrect the reputation of this wounded brand.

Yet against all odds, against every reasonable expectation, they may have found their miracle.

What is it? A TV commercial for their new 7-seater Atlas SUV.

They call the commercial “America.” And it is sheer genius. It is a master class in “How to Make Your Audience Feel Good.”

“America” hammers every emotional note: Love, Marriage, Grief, Adventure, Duty, Family, Tribalism, Suffering, Death, Hope, Parenthood.

That’s a helluva lot of emotion to pack into 90 seconds with almost zero dialogue. But VW manages it.

Volkswagen Atlas commercial “America”

Let’s break down the elements that make this one a home run.

A Dying Wish, A Promise Fulfilled, A Family Re-United

As the ad starts, we see an old woman packing her suitcase. In the voice-over, we hear her read a letter from her husband. We assume he is dead. In the letter, he tells her he wants her to travel across the country with her family.

Already we’re hooked. Who is this old woman? Why does she speak with an Irish accent? What’s this cross-country trip all about?

Their road trip takes them from the east coast to the west via a series of scenic vignettes along the way. From a nameless diner on Route 66 to Monument Valley. From tree-lined country roads to the Pacific Coast Highway.

We cut back and forth between shots of the car traveling various iconic roads and close-ups on the faces of the family.

The old woman. The youngest daughter. The oldest daughter. The two boys.

We hear snippets of conversation. Just enough to deepen the mystery.

“How’d you meet grandpa?”

“It was on a blind date, actually.”

At last, we see an urn in the arms of one of the boys. We assume it holds grandpa’s ashes. The story concludes as we watch the small family empty his ashes into the Pacific Ocean.

Throughout, the face of the grandmother is front and center as she grieves the loss of her husband. We hear the pain in her voice. We see it in her thousand-mile stare as she gazes out the window. We watch the teenage girl reach out to comfort her.

The target demographic for this ad is probably upper-middle-class, 30- to 45-year old married adults with at least two children.

Yet the only adults who fit that demographic barely appear in the ad. I counted them on-screen for less than two seconds out of a 90-second ad.

Lemme tell you, the decision to leave those folks out of the ad was brilliant. Wanna know why?

Because by leaving them out, we put ourselves in.

This is my mother and my grandmother. These are my daughters and sons. This is my country. This is my journey.

Every ad writer worth his pay wants the audience to put themselves into the story. This ad does it in spades. And it in just 90 short seconds.

Like I said, sheer genius.

Emotional Elements:

What makes it work so well? There are four dimensions to its success.

1. Story Arc

2. Relatable Faces

3. Existential Longing

4. Complementary Music

Story Arc: From Mystery to Resolution

The story has a natural arc — Beginning, Middle, End.

The ad starts with a mystery: who is this old woman? Why does she have an Irish accent?

In 90 short seconds, we learn everything we need to know. She loves her husband. They were together a long time. She met him on a blind date. Her grief is almost overwhelming. Her family cares for her.

It ends with a satisfying resolution. True, they traveled across the country to fulfill grandpa’s dying wish. Yet there is more — a surprise. They stand on a cliff overlooking the Pacific and perform a ritual together — they scatter grandpa’s ashes into the ocean.

It is a complete story with a mysterious beginning, an unfolding revelation, and a satisfying and surprising conclusion.

Relatable Faces

People bond with faces, not logos. A face provides a target for people’s emotions. If your marketing or branding lacks a face, then your marketing money is being wasted.

These are the faces of people we recognize and the type of family we long for. These kinds of faces provoke positive emotional responses in most people.

No heart is so cold that it is not moved by an ancient grief, or by a child bonding with a grandparent.

People Bond With Faces.

You should probably get that tattooed on the inside of your eyelids.

Existential Longing

The human desire to belong is primal, visceral and universal. No one avoids it. Our urge to belong is every bit as strong as our drive to eat, breathe and reproduce.

“America” oozes “family” imagery. Yet it is subtle and tender, not heavy-handed or maudlin.

Is the family idealized? Of course.

Do we care? Not one iota.

Reminder: Every person in your market suffers from an existential longing to belong. You have the power to give it to them. Don’t waste it.

Complementary Music

The soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s brilliant America. It’s a great song that gives the commercial its name. The song is old enough to be non-threatening to Baby Boomers yet fresh enough to appeal to Gen-Xers and even Millennials.

It is recognizable without being cliche’.

The emotional tone of the song is “wistful longing.” When matched with the images of the family on their cross-country journey, it amplifies the meaning of the song, and perfectly matches the emotional tone of the images.

That combination is what sets this ad apart.

“America” oozes “family” imagery. Yet it is subtle, not heavy-handed. Is the family idealized? Yes. Do we care? Not one iota.

Reminder: Every person in your market suffers from an existential longing to belong. You have the power to give it to them. Don’t waste it.

Complementary Music

The soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s brilliant America. It’s a great song that gives the commercial its name. The song is old enough to be non-threatening to Baby Boomers yet fresh enough to appeal to Gen-Xers and even Millennials.

It is recognizable without being cliche’.

The emotional tone of the song is “wistful longing.” When matched with the images of the family on their cross-country journey, it amplifies the meaning of the song, and perfectly matches the emotional tone of the images.

That combination is what sets this ad above the crowd.

A Miracle Redemption?

Time will tell whether ads like this will make much difference for Volkswagen in the market. Their sins are many and deep, their reputation couldn’t be much worse. But the company could hardly have imagined a better way to start redeeming their corporate image.

America is destined to go down as one of the great ads of the year, and maybe of the decade. It’s a shining example of the best in advertising.

Study and emulate.

(The ad. Not the company. <shudder>)