VW ‘Bugs’ Oprah’s Audience, Gives Cars to All

Volkswagen of America continues to look for the biggest media environments in which to introduce new models, choosing today’s Oprah Winfrey telecast to show the world the 2012 New Beetle — and promise each audience member one of the vehicles when they are available next year.

Today’s episode marked the second installment of Winfrey’s “Ultimate Favorite Things” program, and the talk show diva drove her audience into hysteria when she rode onto the set in a red Beetle, chauffeured by Santa Claus. “It’s not what you think,” Oprah gently broke the news to her audience. “I wanted to give everyone one of these, but VW said, ‘Sorry, Oprah. We can’t give you this Beetle.'”

Oprah then shocked her audience and sent them through the roof when she announced that VW had agreed to give each one of them a “brand new, totally redesigned 2012 Beetle.” Audience members each received keys to the 2012 version of the car, with only the outline of the model shown to audience members and on air.

This splashy intro follows VW’s July introduction of the redesigned 2011 Jetta in Times Square, when it took over the New York venue with TV cameras and a live global Webcast.

The irony of VW’s move with the New Beetle is that the car, seen as critical to the German automaker attracting showroom traffic for its other less iconic vehicles, will be positioned with a more sculpted exterior to be less of a “woman’s car,” a knock that hurt the previous New Beetle in the eyes of VW executives.

VW execs on Nov. 22 were withholding other details about the program until after the Oprah show had run in East Coast markets. The company has the outline of the 2012 New Beetle in a teaser campaign, “It’s a Beetle. But it’s not.” Deutsch/LA is VW’s ad agency.

The New Beetle saved Volkswagen of America when it debuted as a concept car at the Detroit Auto Show in 1994. The company was on the verge of pulling out of the U.S. market after its storied history. Quality at VW was at an all-time-low, and sales were insufficient to keep dealers in business.

But the debut of the “Concept One” Beetle set off an avalanche of public relations, customer goodwill and nostalgia for VW that drove traffic to showrooms to check out the Golfs, Jettas and Passats. Sales climbed. And when the New Beetle finally went on sale in 1998, the PR frenzy peaked and pushed VW into profitability.

Winfrey is winding down her long-running daily show, and the attendant publicity was too much for VW to turn down, even though the car won’t go on sale for several months. Oprah’s show has been a mixed bag for marketers, especially automakers. In 2004, Pontiac gave away 276 G6 sedans to audience members at a cost of about $7 million. The program didn’t seem to help the GM brand too much, and subsequent publicity centered on the tax that audience members would have to pay on the new cars.

More details will be forthcoming from Volkswagen about how it plans to maximize the Oprah buzz. The talk-show host has also given away Apple iPads and diamonds to audience members.

VW of America marketing chief Tim Ellis said in a Brandweek interview last July that the New Beetle was “an essential piece” of the company’s plan to increase sales to 800,000 in North America by 2018. “Volkswagen has much stronger product here now, and much stronger product coming than was the case when New Beetle debuted in the 1990s,” he said. “But it is so important to the brand because of all the history tied up in the design and the name.”

The original New Beetle had a soft look, with a bulbous arc of a roofline. More than 70 percent of the buyers of the vehicle were women. VW, with its new design, is hoping to make the split of men and women closer to 50-50, said Ellis, though Oprah is hardly known for turning the image of brands and products masculine.