After a Death in the Family, Life Goes on for Volkswagen

The Atlas SUV ad campaign finds a diesel-damaged VW looking for America, and cleansing its soul in the process.

byLawrence Ulrich| UPDATED Jun 13, 2017 12:03 PM
After a Death in the Family, Life Goes on for Volkswagen

One Volkswagen ad is about the beginning of life, the other its end. The first deals in familiar VW humor, the second in patriotism and pathos. But the bookending, Birth-and-Death ads seem apropos for a diesel-scandalized VW brand that’s staging its own rebirth in America. But both spots, created by the Deutsch L.A. ad agency, highlight the brand’s great heavyweight hope: Straight out of Tennessee, the three-row Atlas SUV, which arrived in dealers two weeks ago. It’s the biggest, brawniest VW in the brand’s 80-year history.

The first ad, “Luv Bug,” features a frisky VW couple who seemingly can’t get enough car sex – judging from discreet exterior shots of a jiggling VW Beetle, Jetta, and Tiguan in various nighttime Lovers' Lanes. For the soundtrack, Dean Martin croons “The Birds and the Bees” in Dino’s insinuating, near-leering style. The couple is impressively fertile, but not brand-promiscuous, because each midnight rendezvous brings another baby—and a newer, roomier VW. (They must also be the only family in America that tries to squeeze three children into a shrimpy Tiguan.) The ad culminates with an Atlas, again robustly jiggling. But this time the parents aren’t playing backseat Kama Sutra. Instead, it’s their Mormon-sized brood, bounding around the Atlas interior. Awww. Like the classic Darth Vader Super Bowl ad of 2011, the spot nails the irreverent, daring tone that’s become a VW signature. 

On the heels of the naughty wink-wink, the next Atlas spot—dubbed "America"—aims to put a tear in our eye instead. Beloved grandpa, an Irish immigrant, has died, leaving a grieving widow. The entire family, honoring their patriarch’s last wish, takes a cross-country road trip in their new Atlas, from Brooklyn to the desert Southwest to a final resting place on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. 

Jennifer Clayton, VW’s director of marketing communications, said that the ads’ storylines are very different, but that both celebrate the idea of family.

“Atlas is one of the biggest launch moments for VW since that of the Jetta in 1979,” Clayton said. “Given its importance to the brand, and in keeping with the spirit of past Volkswagen advertising, we wanted to ensure the campaign connected with the American public emotionally.”

Volkswagen, of course, has likely produced more memorable and/or daring ads than any automaker. But has there even been a car commercial that deals with death? Sure, we’ve all seen those Volvo- or Mercedes-style cautionary tales, in which some safety technology narrowly averts an accident, leaving the family shaken but alive. But this is different: I can’t recall a dead hamster showing up in a car ad (definitely not from Kia), much less a human. Suffice to say, companies aren’t keen on people associating their cars with human fatalities. But while the Atlas is definitely as big as a hearse, it’s not painted black. Because, in the immortal words of Monty Python, VW wants us to look on the bright side of death.

Along the way, the children learn more about their grandparents, including that they first met on a blind date. (Perhaps, like the Luv Bug couple, in a rockin’ VW bus?) The old widow, tearing up in a Route 66-style diner, says she wishes grandpa was on the road with them. The granddaughter’s bright reply, “He’s sitting right between the boys in the back of the car,” comes off as a bit of groaner, especially for the agnostics or atheists in the audience. But it does remind us that the Atlas is roomy enough for seven passengers, living or otherwise. That includes grandpa’s onboard ashes, which we see one granddaughter cradling in an urn. (If this were another new family hauler, the Honda Odyssey, we might get a great comedic bit with the Honda Vac). Simon and Garfunkel’s plaintive 1968 folk anthem “America” plays quietly over the scenes, with the volume rising during the Guthrie-esque chorus of “All Come to Look for America.”

For VW fans or industry watchers, the ads resonate in another way: Volkswagen has embarked on its own long, strange trip to rediscover America and find some redemption. Despite some great cars over the years—the GTI, certain Passats and Jettas—VW has consistently misread the American market, as nimbler brands from Subaru to Honda to Hyundai stole its lunch, sales, and market share. Now VW is hauling the guilty family baggage of a $14.7 billion diesel settlement, wondering where to go from here, and what it all means. 

Consider the Atlas a 4,500-pound olive branch, a fervent wish that Americans will let bygones be bygones. As such, the Atlas is a big, friendly suburban lug, specifically designed to ingratiate itself to American buyers. That includes the longest wheelbase in the class—4.5 inches beyond even the hulking Ford Explorer—and the most accessible, genuinely adult-sized third-row. Where VW’s previous SUVs, the Touareg and Tiguan, largely bombed with mainstream buyers—thanks to a deadly combination of smallish size and luxury-car prices—the Atlas’s $31,245 base price represents VW’s welcome return to middle-class reality. That price, not coincidentally, is directly atop the popular Explorer, Honda Pilot, and Toyota Highlander.

If VW is going to stage a comeback, it all starts here—and in Chattanooga, with the new American factory whose relatively affordable labor and insulation from light-truck import tariffs are critical to that competitive pricing. (If the Atlas were built in Germany or Mexico rather than Tennessee, you just know that the commercial’s Simon and Garfunkel hymn to America and American values would have been verboten). 

Interestingly, near the end, as the reflective family watches the sun set over the Pacific, we see only the most fleeting glimpse of grandpa’s ashes being scattered in the ocean; there’s been enough polluting by VW families, thank you very much. But sooty diesel jokes aside, the spot succeeds because it faces its subject head-on, focusing on hope and comfort and unity after a death in the family. The commercial’s oblique, subtext approach to VW’s own troubles also feels quite sophisticated, and miles better than ads from corporate wrongdoers that take the form of abject apology: the whole “We screwed up, won’t you please forgive us?” approach that tends to backfire, because it merely reminds us of the original wrongdoing.

Utlimately, the ad’s message—that Time Heals, and Life Goes On—might give comfort to VW as it tries to find some good from its own corporate tragedy.