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Schizoid Volkswagen; and post-modern ads, Guardian style

17 Jun 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Schizoid Volkswagen; and post-modern ads, Guardian style

VW's latest US ad is a curious blend of a non-apology apology and shamelessness, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: A Guardian 'badge' ad veers into the complicated.

Yes, this is Cannes week and you are probably completely fed up with it already. Me too. In search of a ‘safe space’ I have quit the adland bubble and easy wi-fi access (ok, Dorset actually) till Thursday. a reverse trigger warning...welcome to a Cannes-free zone.

Meanwhile, in the real world...

Schizoid/shameless VW

A new VW ad broke 10 days ago in the US. It’s unusual because, for the first time — other than a few desultory press ads published contemporaneously — VW is acknowledging its shameful diesel cheating. Four years later. But only a bit, because in reality it’s an ad for a yet-to-be-launched model, the VW Buzz.

Here’s the ad, which, if you read the comments underneath, scores many more positives than it does negatives.

It opens with a flashback to breaking news of the diesel scandal. In a dimly-lit studio we see an engineer/designer looking stressed. Is it his conscience? Of course not, he’s looking for inspiration for a new car, which he finds by looking at blueprints of the classic VW minibus. Cue the new car: the I.D. Buzz and the tagline ‘In the darkness, we found the light’.

Hmm, well that is a sort of quasi-Biblical cue. But it seems to me to be more of a play on the fact that VW is electrifying its range (i.e. no filthy polluting fuel here) than a hint of anything else you might find in the Bible, such as repentance or contrition.

In fact it makes you wonder, are they only electrifying because they got caught cheating? Well yes, according to its US marketing director Jim Zabel, who conceded that “our biggest mistake has led to the biggest transformation in the company’s history”.

And if you’re looking for an apology, as many who bought VWs because they thought they were cleaner than rival marques or those with petrol engines, and whose resale value slumped consequently, might be, you’d be sorely disappointed. They’re still waiting.

No, it’s more like the non-apology apology. It brings to mind the classic political sidestep of the Boris type; not ‘I’m sorry I slagged off all Muslim women for wearing the burka’ so much as ‘I’m sorry that they took offence at what I said’.

So why bother, especially given that VW sales in the US have been doing pretty well of late, up 5% or so in the all-important SUV category?

VW’s explanation, in language relationship counsellors might use, is that “without mentioning the past...we would never have the credibility or authenticity to move forward with the brand.” Bob Hoffman, aka the Ad Contrarian points out, VW didn’t feel the need to apologise for its close links with Hitler when it first started selling cars in the US in the late 1950s.

If VW was really serious about ‘moving on’, then it should have apologised back in 2015. As in life, the rule on apologies is simple: make it handsome, make it generous, and make it fast.

So its tactic here, it seems to me, combines schizophrenia (a non-apology apology) and shamelessness.

Mind you, I quite like the ad, although it is somewhat imitative of this ad (by as-then BMP DDB) about an obsessive VW engineer testing door closures.

Post-modern ads, Guardian style

This single-page ad from the Guardian in the latest issue of Campaign intrigues me. Media owner ads in the trade press are generally execrable, the Guardian being a notable exception by tradition.

The bright yellow background and restrained layout catch the eye. Leaving half the page empty — against the tendency to cram everything in, add some ‘awesome’ reader stats, and then finish it off with a series of giant exclamation marks — suggests an understated confidence.

Unlike 90% of the stuff in Campaign these days, it’s not even a 'Sponsored Promotional Update’ or whatever they call these things.

Indeed, having turned the corner financially, I’d say the Guardian has every right to feel good about itself. No mention, for example, of monthly reach or engagement levels, both of which the title performs well on.

If I have it right, the ad posits the Guardian not just as the home of progressive editorial thinking, but also for progressive advertisers and advertising (not always the same thing).

While I’m sure chief revenue officer Hamish Nicklin and his team wouldn’t turn away money from what you might call retrogressive advertisers — hmm, fossil fuel companies, pay-day loan suppliers, HFSS producers, post-dieselgate VW — the ad is subtly cunning in the way that it seeks to flatter those who book space with the title.

‘Here,’ it says to advertisers, ‘if you’re in the Guardian you are by definition modern, rejecting the traditional, part of a revolution, looking for better.’ Even the Freemasons might feel that they were modern if they placed recruitment ads in the Guardian.

It’s a classic example of positioning a media channel as a badge product.

Following the link at the bottom of the page offers some numbers evidence (trust, reach, etc) and some examples of ‘modern’ advertising from the likes of Philips, Tesco and the TSB (a so-called progressive bank which probably indexes high with Guardian readers but which has pissed everybody off with its real-life behaviour).

All carry the tag ‘Paid for by’ — which is where it gets interesting, because I’m not sure I know what ‘Paid for by’ precisely means.

Go here and you will find an explanation. It turns out that ‘Paid for by’ means produced and controlled by the advertiser, subject to ASA rules, and created by the Guardian commercial team (which may include journalists), but not the title’s actual journalists.

Clear enough, you might say, but then it gets more complicated. There’s ‘Advertiser content/Content from our Advertisers’: this means the same as ‘Paid for by’, except that it’s the advertiser that makes or produces the content.

And then there’s 'Supported by’, which (I think) means independent editorial produced by Guardian journalists to the title’s own brief and without copy approval but which is funded by commercial parties and carries their branding. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, supports the Guardian’s Global Development mini site.

Full marks to the Guardian for transparency.

But some of this feels like dancing on the head of a pin. If even media professionals find it confusing, where does that leave the average Guardian reader or consumer who has to make some effort to understand the difference.

Meanwhile, other publishers use different terminology. The Times is big on 'Sponsored' content, as in this Virgin Money example, while the Telegraph here uses ‘Brought to you by’. Some use the term ‘Partnership’, which seems a bit of a catch-all to me. No doubt you will find other nomenclature anywhere you look.

My point is not that any of this is necessarily bad (I’m currently working on a sponsored piece myself for a client, although I’m now unsure what to call it). Indeed, the ability to produce and carry this sort of stuff, loosely labelled ‘content’, is table stakes for publishers these days.

I suppose, if you were to apply a socio-cultural lens to all this, we’d call this post-modern advertising in the sense that it is exaggeratedly self-aware, elevates subjectivity over objectivity (i.e. the meaning is what I say it is, not what the author intends) and a little bit up itself.

It makes me yearn for a return to the era when ads were, well, just ads. Look at one, and know it immediately for what it is. No need for any complicated labelling.

Is that pre-modern? Or pre-postmodern? Aargh...I'm confusing myself now.

Anyway, whatever it is, that yellow Guardian ad is a good place to start.

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RichardCastle, Owner, Castle Consults on 17 Jun 2019
“That the labelling of commercial content is inconsistent is (mostly) a good thing. It allows publishers the ability to apply a label to identify content as marketing communication that is most relevant for its readers. The key thing is that there is a label and that the commercial partner is identified. That said, your "Paid for by XXX" point is very valid - of all the options it is a confusing label and appears to be part derived from the FTC in the US and part from Facebook's labelling requirements. As for the Guardian's "modern" position - it is powerful and well-aimed. Which client wouldn't want to buy advertising there?”


22 May 2020 

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