Ad Shatters A TV Taboo Head-On

One of two Volkswagen Jetta
One of two Volkswagen Jetta "Safe Happens" commercials. The company says the ads use no trickery, and show actual crashes with non-reinforced Jettas. (Volkswagen)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

So these two guys on TV are rolling down the road, chatting about this and that and just generally chillin' when out of the blue comes this red pickup. Car meets truck. Tires shriek, metal bends with a concussive thud, glass shatters and sprays. The two guys fly out of their seats like flour sacks, faces planted into the spreading white of the car's airbags.

The violent crash isn't part of a shoot'em-up film or a cop show. It's one of two much-debated commercials from Volkswagen of America for its Jetta sedan.

The German automaker says it is selling the durability and safety of its product; the crashes are followed by shots of the passengers walking away, dazed but uninjured. Viewers, however, might be forgiven if the ads jolt them off the couch much like the two guys in the commercial.

Love 'em or hate 'em -- and VW says it's gotten strong reactions both ways -- the Jetta commercials represent new territory in car advertising, a line crossed. After steering clear of safety pitches for decades, carmakers began to tout safety in earnest in the 1980s with the advent of family-friendly minivans and government crash test ratings, says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety. The ads went from static comparisons to more explicit imagery in the 1990s, with driverless cars and crash test dummies slamming into walls in test labs.

But safety and advertising pros cannot remember any car company going so far as to show people being banged around in such shocking and violent circumstances as VW has. BMW even declined to air an ad five years ago because its slow-motion footage of a crash dummy being crunched in a crash was deemed "too scary," says Claudia Caplan of Mendelsohn Zien Advertising in Santa Monica, Calif., which handled the campaign.

VW says its two commercials, created by the Miami agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky and themed "Safe Happens," weren't tricked up in any way. The crashes were shot in one take, using real stunt people and real, non-reinforced Jettas, says Karen Marderosian, Volkswagen of America's director of marketing. The company even conducted the crashes according to the speeds used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in its crash tests -- 32 mph in a head-on collision (shown in the spot featuring the two guys) and 18 mph in the side-impact crash (featured in the ad with the couples).

Marderosian says she's heard the complaints -- about using "shock value" to sell, about the unpleasant reaction that accident victims might have upon suddenly encountering the commercials. But that misses the point, she says: "We're trying to get people's attention, yes, but not purely for shock value." Instead, the ads are pegged to the Jetta's four-star (frontal) and five-star (side) ratings in NHTSA's tests.

"We're trying to show that these are types of crashes that happen frequently," she says. "We're showing the damage they can do to your car. The fact that you can walk away from it is very interesting."

Well, yes. But.

Safety experts generally applaud VW's depictions, saying the company raises public awareness about auto safety with very memorable advertising. "If [the ads] make people aware of their vulnerability when they get into their vehicle, that's a good thing," says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry-funded group. "It's a whole lot better message than telling people the stereo has 400 watts."

Or that the car is speedy, a common selling point in car advertising. Indeed, Volkswagen itself is doing that, with another model, the 200-horsepower GTI. Commercials for the car feature a demonic little character and the slogan, "Make Friends With Your Fast."

On the other hand, Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a consumer and industry group, points out that your results in an auto accident may vary -- widely. "Nothing is foolproof in a crash," she says. "I think the company knows that. By showing such a positive outcome -- when it might not be that way in the real world -- you wonder if they're taking a risk of saying, 'The car will take care of you.' Chances are, the car will protect you. But you just don't know."

VW acknowledges that, in the fine print that flashes by almost imperceptibly at the end of the commercials. Placed beneath the crumpled image of the cars, the text reads, in part: "All crashes are different and severe injuries can occur. Airbags do not deploy in all accidents."

What's more, Ditlow says, Jetta's safety record isn't particularly special. He says about 90 percent of the passenger cars tested by NHTSA receive either four- or five-star ratings. The Jetta's ratings aren't much better than those of similar models made by Toyota or Pontiac, and are worse than those of the Mitsubishi Galant and the Mercury Montego.

Those distinctions might be lost on VW's target audience for the Jetta, typically young-adult buyers. Manufacturers tend to emphasize style and speed over safety for those customers. Matt Christy, 30, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said he found the ads "gripping."

"Honestly, they're pretty striking, no pun intended," Christy says. "Safety is a big thing with me. If I can walk away from something like that, that's a major factor."

Yet for all the buzz the commercials have generated, it's not clear whether they've done much for sales. So far, Jetta sales for May, a typically strong month, are behind the pace of April.

"We don't have any finite analysis that our sales have increased," national VW spokesman Sean Maynard says. "It's difficult to say."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company