VW, Crispin Try The Shock Treatment

At first, it seems like an average car ride home after a double date at the movies. Two couples discuss the emotional pull of the tearjerker they just saw, but “the sad ending” becomes a personal reality for the friends when, without warning, another car hurtles into them, instantly bringing their conversation to a hault. Trembling, but seemingly unhurt, outside the accident scene, one shaken-up passenger quivers as she looks at the crashed car and expresses her shock. The spot, for the Volkswagen Jetta, is one of two that broke the week of April 10 and feature jarring, visceral scenes of car crashes to emphasize the message, “Safe happens.”

Compare that to 20 years ago, when Leo Burnett USA (via The Ad Council) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration introduced America to Vince and Larry, the crash test dummies. They rapped, they danced, they went crashing through windshields. A bit of a jolt, perhaps, but mostly a good visual gag. The long-running PSAs taught us to “Buckle Up. Always.”

Over time, automakers have wrecked cars for their commercials in a number of ways. Just last year, Ford showed its F-150 getting crushed between two bulldozers, and vehicles are often shown withstanding crash tests, all in the name of safety.

But those spots have one thing in common—they take place in controlled environments, and the destruction never pretends to be anything but staged. This is a stark contrast to the violence and realism of the new VW spots, created by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Miami. The graphic accidents depicted happen on “real” streets with “real” people in the middle of casual conversations, as it tends to happen in actual crashes.

Some of the reactions to the commercials have been as visceral as the ads themselves. Consumers have been calling the company en masse to comment or inquire about the details of making the ads. Some have even expressed concern about the welfare of the actors. Last Thursday, NBC’s Today did a four-minute segment on whether the spots go too far, and the blogosphere is buzzing with commentary that ranges from artistic praise to indignation.

On TV Squad, a blog devoted to television, an entry titled “Volkswagen ads are freaking me out” received more than a dozen user comments. Some reported enjoying the spots, but most said they were “too realistic” or “unnerving.” One user named Mary Ellen wrote: “The ads scare the heck out of me, and I would love to find a place to register my outrage. I am not scared enough to buy a Volkswagen, if that is what the ‘oh-so-cutting-edge’ ad agency was hoping.”

The agency, not surprisingly, is not offering any apologies.

“I don’t think they go too far,” said Andrew Keller, executive creative director on the campaign at Crispin. “I’m not even sure what that means.

“People are unsettled because we are breaking the rules of advertising. We make no apologies for that,” Keller said.

The client is standing behind the agency, as well. Kerri Martin, director of brand innovation for VW, said the company loves the ads and is “thrilled” by the attention.

“It’s hard to do safety in a creative way,” Martin said. “Safety is a core value at Volkswagen, and we want to tell that story.” The idea for a safety-centric campaign sprang from the Jetta’s 2005 and 2006 claim to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s highest rating, she said.

Lee Garfinkel, chief creative officer of Omnicom Group’s DDB New York, which handles the Subaru account, said, “I kind of applaud anybody who does something that goes against the norm. I think that’s good.

“If it succeeds, then it opens the door for the industry to think differently” about how to craft car ads, Garfinkel added. “Now let’s wait and see if it translates into sales.”

Not everyone thinks it will. Kathy Delaney, chief creative officer and president of Deutsch New York, applauds the ads for their executional finesse (“you really do believe that the accidents are happening”), but believes they “don’t give any reason why a VW Jetta is safer. … You miss who brought you the ad,” she said, suggesting they make better PSAs than car commercials.

Bob Grace, president of the VW National Dealers Council and owner of Southpoint VW in Baton Rouge, La., said that not only do dealers support the campaign, but some are reporting increased sales already. A few have even expressed concern about getting enough new cars to replace inventory, he said.

“The dealer group loves it,” he said. “It gets your attention.” This is hardly insignificant praise, given dealers’ traditional preference for ads that showcase the cars in their best light.

Indeed, ending the spot with the image of a crashed Jetta was a concern when making the ad, said Keller, but the team decided it was important to the message. “This is beauty to us,” he said. “You can see a pristine Jetta anywhere.”

These latest spots follow the initial campaign in February from Crispin, which featured VW’s GTI. That campaign introduced a gremlin-like icon named Fast who induced drivers to enjoy the car’s performance, even at the risk of alienating wives, girlfriends or even a police officer. That work also generated a large response from viewers, Martin said, and it generated buyers. Sales of the GTI last month were the highest in company history, she claimed, although she did not provide exact numbers.

The radical difference between the two sales pitches—speed at all costs versus safety (albeit for different models)—was not lost on some creatives. “I think it’s ironic to go from ‘Fast’ to accident survival,” said one.

The spots will run for four weeks before being replaced with new Jetta work that abandons the safety issue to focus on the Jetta driver, said Martin. She would not be more specific. The company plans to launch a new Web site next month that continues the safety campaign by allowing people to configure a new Jetta, then crash it in a variety of ways to see how the car would withstand the impact.

As for the sales approach, Dennis Virag, president of The Automotive Consulting Group in Ann Arbor, Mich., said car buyers are more concerned about safety than ever before, and advertising it can raise sales. “We once said in this industry that safety doesn’t sell,” Virag said. “Times have changed. Safety does sell.”

Doc Searls, president of the Searls Group, a marketing consultancy in Santa Barbara, Calif., said he believes the ads will help VW sell cars. “Safety was Volvo’s position forever,” Searls said. “This could become a niche market for VW.”