Volkswagen bends to critique, pulls sexist ad

0 Posted by - December 16, 2011 - Blog
VW Passat advertisement

Still from the Volkswagen Passat television ad in question.

Volkswagen Canada has pulled the 2011 Passat TV ad “It pretty much sells itself” from its official YouTube channel and from TV rotation, including a prominent pre-roll spot on CBC News. Judging from Volkswagen Canada’s official Twitter account, the decision to pull the ad was in response to a critique I published last week on Art Threat.

Public acknowledgement of the criticism directed toward this VW Passat ad is a positive step for Volkswagen Canada to take.

In responding to the article, VW Canada replied to me on Twitter, officially stating the ad had been removed. “Thanks for your concern regarding the Passat Ad. We value your concern & had no intention of offending. All ads have been pulled,” writes an anonymous VW Canada social media worker, not surprisingly failing to address the offensive content and context to the ad.

In pulling the ad without expanding on issues raised in the critique, VW misses an opportunity to address fundamental issues relating to sexism and car culture. As a major automobile manufacturer Volkswagen directly contributes to a run-away obsession toward automobiles in North America, constructing a car first mentality driving the narrative in the now pulled VW Passat publicity spot.

Volkswagen Canada’s media relations manager, Thomas Tetzlaff, responded to my article claiming that the company decided to pull the offensive ad prior to the publication of my critique on Art Threat. However, internet records suggest this statement is questionable, as versions of the video that appeared on YouTube and Vimeo were clearly removed in the afternoon following publication.

Vimeo screenshot

Breaking down the big picture problematics of car culture via one offensive VW ad is impossible; however, pushing forward a public discussion on the issues is only positive.

Certainly the intended goal of the ad, co-created by Toronto ad agency Red Urban and filmmaker Jean-Michel Ravon of Untitled Films, wasn’t to offend viewers but to hype interest in a 2011 VW car, however the off-kilter narrative playing on human sensibilities around childbirth is unnerving.

In the ad a couple driving a 2011 Passat rushes to a hospital, the woman on the edge of childbirth. Upon arrival at emergency a paramedic on the scene strikes-up a conversation with the husband on Passat features, ignoring the woman facing childbirth. Eventually the male duo push the driver seat door closed on the woman, who cries out, “Guys? having a baby here!” finishing the publicity spot with the most offensive moment.

Does a Volkswagen ad storyline celebrating a new car over childbirth illustrate a new low in North American car obsession?

Additionally, Tetzlaff stated that their “intention was not to offend,” and that the ad was attempting to “cut through the clutter” by “attempting to try to inject humor into a situation” — the situation in the ad narrative being childbirth. Again two men, the husband and a paramedic, ogling over a new VW car at such a critical moment clearly isn’t ‘humorous’ and illustrates a disturbing narrative play on a corporate drive to instill love for automobiles into even the most critical moments of our lives, in this case a pending childbirth.

Public feedback responding to original critique was generally positive, especially after VW moved to pull the ad. However some messages and online comments (mainly from men) argued the VW ad was not sexist and actually pointed to male stupidity, illustrating a love for cars over all else in this world.

Certainly the ad in question plays on an imagined male obsession for cars, a gender stereotype that is perpetuated by automobile corporations for profit.

In sustaining the myth of male car love, corporate car ads, playing on this gender stereotype, are generally deeply sexist in nature, like the 2011 VW Passat ad in question or this 2010 Dodge Charger ad, titled “Man’s Last Stand”.

In a direct way this ad celebrates North America’s dependence and obsession with cars.

Why is it acceptable to present an ad, on Canada’s public broadcaster, driven by a script shunning a woman’s childbirth experience, balanced on a narrative portraying the inhumanity of two men celebrating a new car over childbirth?

“It’s an example of the way that advertisers are willing to disregard any sort of human or social consequences of their messaging in the pursuit of sales and profits, even if that means disappearing a woman going into childbirth over a new Volkswagen car” comments activist Yves Engler, who co-authored Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay this past year.

“VW Canada spends many, many millions a year in advertising, so pulling the ad is a small bit of damage control and avoids addressing any fundamental questions on corporate advertising policy,” continues Engler. “The massive advertising budget of car companies speaks to the reality that the advertising goal is to create an identification with their products and if that means in this case, men caring more about the design of a vehicle over a new human being, VW is prepared to do that.”

Certainly VW Canada pulling this ad is positive, but is a tiny step for a major player on this issue and in no way relieves Volkswagen’s responsibility in perpetuating and profiting off automobile dependency in North America.

On a positive note, the snap decision by VW to pull the spot illustrates the power of people to challenge corporations for offensive advertising and get results.

As Canadian activists in Durban, South Africa, act to protest our Conservative government’s moves to sabotage any progress toward a global binding treaty on climate change, awareness and action toward corporate ads that promote automobile obsession in North America are critically important.

Cars are generally part of the problem, not solutions for the climate change crisis, and a VW ad promoting a new car at the expense of a childbirth illustrates this perfectly.

Building on the inspiring tradition of ad jamming celebrated by publications such as Adbusters, let us continue to challenge the barrage of offensive corporate-driven ad campaigns permeating our lives.

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