Volkswagen overhauls marketing after backlash from racist ad

Dive Brief:

  • Volkswagen Group updated its marketing protocols and fired its agencies after backlash from a racist ad for its new Golf model, Bloomberg reported.
  • The ad, produced by Omnicom Group Inc.’s German subsidiary Voltag, aired on Instagram last month and showed a black man being controlled by a giant white hand through marionette strings before displaying a pejorative German word for people of color. Some critics noted that the hand appears to show a white-power signal. The automotive company said it will tighten controls around its creative and update employee training protocols.
  • “Despite our diverse and international teams, a racist video was produced,” Juergen Stackmann, head of marketing at Volkswagen, said in a press briefing to present results of the company’s investigation into the debacle, per Bloomberg. “It seems very clear that, apart from mistakes in the process chain, there were also shortcomings in creating sensitivity among employees.”

Dive Insight:

Volkswagen’s latest failure illustrates that even in 2020, brands are still not getting diversity and inclusion right in their marketing. The company owned up to the mistake — albeit ex post facto — but will likely continue to face criticism as consumers grow increasingly fed up with these kinds of oversights.

The ad shows a black man being moved like a marionette by a large white hand, which flicks him to the entrance of the Petit Colon cafe in Buenos Aires, evoking images of colonialism, per Bloomberg. Volkswagen contends it sought to recreate a hand motif that’s popular on TikTok. The subsequent pejorative German word and a white-power sign that critics have noted are tone deaf on their own, but are especially timely because of current protests around the world regarding racial injustices.

The ad was part of a five-video series showing a mixed-race couple playing games with each other. This concept suggests the brand was hoping to produce an ad displaying more diversity, but instead rendered the brand clueless about historical issues of colonialism. Initially, Volkswagen leadership brushed it off.

“No one from the team realized that flicking away a person is inappropriate on its own — and racist in the context shown,” CMO Jochen Sengpiehl said in a company statement. “We must apologize for that, with no ifs and buts. And ensure that something like it can never happen again.”

The revamp in marketing protocols follows Volkswagen’s labor unions pushing for an overhaul of the brand’s social media marketing after consumer backlash from the ad online. In response to the union request, the carmaker has created a council to investigate what happened to ensure better decisions are made by its marketing teams in the future. Still, no one has been fired, as CNN notes.

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