Owning Up to Its Scandals, Volkswagen Seeks a Light Out of Its Darkest Era in New Ad

Johannes Leonardo addresses the elephant in the room

From the dark, some light emerges. Volkswagen

Some years back, the conversation around Volkswagen was decidedly different. As it relates to creativity, we were talking about what fun and poignant work the brand and, by extension, their agencies, were creating.

Flying along under a clear night with Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” as a soundtrack, a remixed “Singing in the Rain” for the Golf GTi and the classic Super Bowl ad “The Force”—it all feels like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Between then and now was, of course, an emissions scandal on an unprecedented scale—leaving the brand’s reputation at a difficult crossroad to navigate.

On the agency end, longtime partners Deutsch and Arnold are gone, and in their place is Johannes Leonardo as the creative lead dog in the U.S. after a review saw the automaker divvy up geographic regions among three primary players: WPP, Omnicom and Cheil.

As far as the brand is concerned, VW has apparently been doing quite a bit of soul-searching (and paying fines) since their hands were caught in the lying-about-diesel-engine-emissions cookie jar.

With that ominous backdrop, the brand and Johannes Leonardo have launched a new ad, titled “Hello Light,” which seeks to not necessarily change the narrative about the brand, per se, but rather to be open and honest about past indiscretions and turn the page into what is hopefully a new chapter for the automaker.

From the jump in the 105-second spot, the brand doesn’t waste time and gets right into the scandal.

A dark room is partly illuminated, and we are introduced to a designer who sighs heavily before tucking into his work. Set to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the tableau is decidedly dark…quite literally, yet lands on a conclusion that provides a glimmer of hope in the form of the phrase, “In the darkness, we found the light,” and an electric car.

The reveal is what could be considered the first salvo in VW’s ambition to become the world’s largest producer of electric cars, a plan that is both applauded and met with skepticism.

Regardless, one can’t help but think about the creative process on this one. How is a formerly beloved brand going to make its way back? Credit is due for VW not shying away with this, though one wonders what choice they had in the first place. Probably none. A cute, distracting ad reminiscent of the brand’s glory days simply wasn’t going to cut it. Johannes Leonardo deserves creative props for not overcorrecting and going with a more restrained approach.

Some, however, might question the choice of music. “The Sound of Silence” has, thanks to Arrested Development, become a meme of sorts for when someone undeserving of pity begins wallowing in self-reflection. For fans of the show, that might put the VW ad in a very different light than intended.

Although the new ad isn’t enough to single-handedly turn over a new page for the automaker, and it’s likely to spark its own renewed round of criticism for how Volkswagen has managed the response to its misdeeds, a little mea culpa may just be the right step to start building a platform that could revitalize the brand’s image…as long as VW execs keep their promises and noses clean.

@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.