VW Apologizes for “Tasteless” Video Some Called “Racist”

Volkswagen is apologizing after a social media ad was called “racist” by some consumers. In the ad, a giant white hand initially shoves a dark-skinned man away from a Volkswagen car. When the man tries to hold his ground, the giant hand flicks him away from the car.

That might have been enough for some to cry foul, but there’s more. According to reports in the Associated Press and other media outlets, the name of the café into which the man is “flicked” translates as “Little Colonist,” and, when the name of the vehicle comes on screen, the initially jumbled letters reportedly, and briefly, spelled out a racial slur.

The ad and the criticism of it quickly went viral, forcing Volkswagen to issue an apology. The automaker says it pulled the ad and that company executives understand the outrage: “Without question, the video is inappropriate and tasteless… We will clarify how something like this could happen, and there will be consequences.”

The issue, what critics called “clear racial overtones” of the ad, is a specific touchpoint for Volkswagen, given the company’s history and professed public statements. VW was founded during the Nazi regime to produce the “people’s car,” and the company has invested quite a bit in messaging to distance itself not only from that regime but also from “all forms of racism, xenophobia, and discrimination…”

A company spokesperson added: “Many initiatives in the company and in our global workforce promote diversity, integration, and unprejudiced cooperation. That makes it all the more annoying that we made this mistake…”

“Annoying” may not have been the word critics wanted to hear. They called the spot “racist” and “horrible,” among other things. Both the creation of the ad and the initial response to the ad make it clear that someone involved, perhaps several people in the process of creating and approving that ad, thought it was either funny or appropriate as a message to a mass audience.

This fact signals some apparent issues within VW’s advertising and PR workflow. It didn’t help that, according to MarketWatch, the German automaker initially dismissed the criticism, saying the company was “surprised and shocked (the ad) was so misunderstood…”

The position statement didn’t last long, as the company was lambasted on social media for being completely tone deaf… among other less-complimentary descriptions. Soon, VW head of sales and marketing Jurgen Stackmann, was back on social media offering a very different take on the issue: “We posted a racist advertising video on Volkswagen’s Instagram channel… We understand the public outrage at this, because we are horrified too. On behalf of Volkswagen AG, we apologize to the public for this film… And we apologize in particular to those who feel personally hurt by the racist content…”

That statement more accurately mirrored the perspective of the audience, so it was better received. Unfortunately, it didn’t have as much of a positive impact as it could have, because it came after a previous statement that clearly misread the terrain and served to further upset the audience.

The lesson: be proactive on the production side so that these kinds of issues don’t come up in the first place, but, if they do, be sure the response is appropriate to the situation and for the audience. Otherwise, it could make a bad consumer PR situation even worse.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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