Volkswagen Tried To Explain What Happened With That Racist Ad

The racist ad appeared on social media last month, and showed a giant white hand manipulating a black man like a marionette. Volkswagen eventually pulled the ad and launched an internal investigation. The company released the results of that investigation today, which are illuminating but perhaps in not all the ways VW intended.

Usually in situations like this, I’m inclined to believe a broader marketing conspiracy is at play but the bluntness of the ad, Volkswagen’s subsequent response, and Volkswagen’s, uh, history make me think this belongs more to the genre of classic corporate fuck-up.

You can view the ad in question here if you’re so inclined, but, suffice to say, the racism was multi-faceted. Here’s Bloomberg’s description:

The short video shows a man with dark skin moved around like a marionette by a large white hand, which flips him into the entrance of the Petit Colon cafe in Buenos Aires, evoking images of colonialism.

Letters that spell a pejorative German word for people of colour briefly appear on screen before filling out to display the slogan for the new Golf. Some critics have noted that the hand appears to show a white-power signal.

And here’s what VW said it did as part of the subsequent internal investigation:

As part of the investigation, Group Audit analysed around 400 files with a data volume of more than 16.5 GB and conducted interviews with employees, primarily in marketing, procurement and the legal department, as well as with the external agencies involved. “On this basis, we can state that racist intentions did not play any role whatsoever. We found a lack of sensitivity and procedural errors. And we are now taking targeted steps in response,” continues [Hiltrud D. Werner, member of the Volkswagen Group Board of Management responsible for Integrity and Legal Affairs].

I have no idea how you can conclude anything about “intentions” in a case like this, but Volkswagen has convinced itself it can. More to the point, Jochen Sengpiehl, VW’s chief marketing officer, had this to say:

“The critical point is that we failed to spot the racist elements of this video.”

VW also trotted out interviews from three executives to explain this debacle — Sengpiehl, Werner, and board member Jürgen Stackmann. Among the things revealed in those interviews: 200 people saw the clip before it was posted online, and no one flagged anything. The clip had also posted in various places for a couple of weeks before it got noticed and was taken down.

Sengpiehl described the timeline like this. What would turn out to be a trainwreck was weeks in the making:

How is the approval process organised?

There is a multi-stage creation and approval process, both on the agency side and at our company. We first viewed the digital content for the Golf 8 campaign, including this video, at the beginning of February 2020. We at Marketing approved the content.

200 people from a wide range of different origins – both in our team and on the agency side – are bound to have watched the Golf 8 videos and yet, I’m sorry to say, no one noticed that the content was critical.

[…]

When and where was the video published?

The Golf snippet was used in this form in Germany only. It was shown as a story on Instagram for 24 hours on March 24, 2020, and could be viewed by Volkswagen followers. On that day, there were no negative comments or remarks we were aware of.

As of May 1, 2020, the snippet was then shown as part of the Golf 8 campaign – i.e. as advertising – and was published on Instagram and Facebook for far broader target groups.

On May 8, 2020, the video was also published on the Twitter channel of Jürgen Stackmann. Following two negative comments, the Twitter post was deleted again and the Marketing department was notified of the fact. Unfortunately, the matter was not pursued thoroughly enough or escalated.

After further negative responses to the campaign on May 19, 2020, we halted publication of the video and removed it the next day, May 20, 2020.

You probably know the rest.

Interestingly, Sengpiehl says here that the clip was posted to Stackmann’s Twitter account on May 8, but Stackmann says in his interview that he hadn’t seen it until May 19. That suggests that Stackmann lets the folks marketing control his Twitter account. Stackmann describing the moment he was told:

Mr. Stackmann, how did you react when you learned about the video?

When a colleague called me at 11 p.m. on May 19 and then sent me the link, my first thought was: That must be a fake. My second thought was: Someone has hacked our account. I was deeply shocked and asked myself: Was it sabotage or have we really made such a huge blunder unintentionally?

VW said no one was fired over the incident, though it didn’t rule out internal discipline. This episode has taught me nothing that I didn’t already know about Volkswagen but plenty that I didn’t know about automaker marketing, namely that 200 people could see this ad and think, “seems fine.”