Volkswagen Breaks Down Another Taboo With a Beautiful Ad About the Pain of Family Life

Inside a father and son's difficult relationship

In advertising, the concept of family is almost always a positive one—bringing joy, comfort and meaning to people’s lives. Some comic advertising has fun with dysfunctional families, but it’s rare that an advertisement takes a serious look at one of the most fundamental of human problems—the pain caused by difficult family relationships.

Volkswagen steps boldly into that fray with a lovely new long-form ad in Denmark called “Generations.” Made by creative shop Very Agency, it features a man, at the urging of his mother, taking a road trip with his aging father in the old man’s vintage Beetle.

From the first few seconds of the short film, it’s clear this will be a bumpy ride. Out of nowhere, we see the son emerging from the Beetle alone, in the countryside, and suddenly screaming in anger at the sky and punching the air.

Only later do we understand what’s happened. But suffice it to say, old wounds have surfaced. He’s battling the kind of unseen, ancient injuries that only our loved ones can so deeply inflict.

Sune Svanborg Sørensen came up with the idea, wrote the script and directed the film—a collaboration with Very Agency, creative director Thomas Pries and production company Shoot Happens. The plot isn’t revolutionary. In fact, it’s fairly commonplace—for an unbranded film. But it’s unusual for a commercial, and the story is skillfully told—with the product’s role in the storytelling particularly clever.

The road-trip framework keeps the brand front and center (we could have done without the VW mug, but OK), and yet the Beetle’s role is ambiguous. The father adores it; the son resents it. It becomes a symbol of their disconnect—a thorny spot indeed for a brand. And yet, the trip itself, taken in an automobile that’s practically a family heirloom, also seems to facilitate an awakening in the son to the knowledge that his father did love him after all. (This is also left nicely ambiguous, and open to interpretation.)

"For us it is something real and a conversation that is already going on out there."
Thomas Bjerg, Very Agency

That the spot tackles a somewhat taboo topic shouldn’t be a surprise, given the agency involved. Very Agency also made last year’s remarkable short film about divorce for another automaker, Ford—a piece of work that was likewise both beautiful and sad. That film, titled “The Family,” won a gold Lion in Entertainment at Cannes in 2016. (Difficult family topics are something that Ikea has also been broaching in ad campaigns in its home country of Sweden.)

AdFreak spoke with Thomas Bjerg, CEO at Very Agency in Copenhagen, about the new VW work. He said the goal of this kind of campaign is to tap into the emotional truths about cars, not just the practical benefits or features, and also to present real and relatable human situations that are happening in the world, whether or not most advertisers want to admit it or address it.

“Every third adult experiences conflict with their parents that affects the relationship,” he said. “We don’t judge what is right or wrong, but we try to tap into the already existing meaningful conversations. For us it is something real and a conversation that is already going on out there.”

The story does tie back to the VW brand pretty directly, though, he added.

“An important theme of the film is the father-son relationship and how the main character learns from the relationship with his father, as he tries to be a better father for his own son,” Bjerg said. “Fathers are committed to being the best version of themselves for the next generation. And in a similar fashion, Volkswagen aims to constantly improve and be even better than the previous generation.” (The son in the film tacitly acknowledges both truths—being a loving father to his own boy, while driving his own, late-model VW too.)

In the end, it’s an intriguing way to compellingly connect person and product.

“Our hope is that the film enables Volkswagen to talk about emotions,” said Bjerg. “The iconic car is passed on from one generation to the next, and this triggers memories of the past and reflections on the future. For generations, the brand has been part of many peoples’ lives, and for that reason alone, many emotions are attached to the brand—and we feel that these emotions deserve to be communicated. Whether the father’s love for the car exceeds the love for his son is up for interpretation, but it could seem like that at some points in the film. One could also argue that the son has realized, and maybe even understood, his father’s love for him as a son too late. We try to leave it to the audience.”

Michael Stein, head of marketing at Volkswagen Denmark, acknowledges the unusual nature of addressing family problems in ads, but says the automaker is committed to “becoming better at developing cars that help move people forward, but also better at understanding and telling the stories of who we really are.”

That approach, over time, can draw more people in, Bjerg added.

“The relationship with a car can have very strong emotional factors, because the car is often a starting point for new adventures, memories and the way we relate to each other,” he said. “We believe that this is a strong starting point for communicating. Not just to create engagement and involvement, but also to establish a strong differentiator in a category whose communication is traditionally driven by the functional aspects of cars.”

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