VW hopes a song can save its soul and sell electric cars

By BLOOMBERG | 4 November 2019

NEW YORK: American car buyers are a forgiving bunch. Although they all but abandoned Volkswagen in 2015 after the German car maker admitted to cheating on emissions tests, they didn’t stay mad for long.

Within two years Volkswagen sales had recovered. The company has regularly outsold Toyota since 2016 on a global basis, and while it did recently scale back its 2019 forecast, that had more to do with a general slowdown in car sales than anything else.

Still, the emissions scandal put Volkswagen in an awkward position this year when it announced plans to make 70 different electric models and sell 22 million electric cars within the next decade. Would people believe the promise? When it came to environmental claims the company didn’t exactly have a reputation for honesty. So, it turned to advertising.

“It was a very complicated and delicate challenge,” says Al Risi, the founder of the music licensing firm Groove Guild here and part of the advertising team that helped Volkswagen rethink its strategy. “Three and a half years after the scandal, how do you address it? It’s too late for an apology.”

In June, Volkswagen aired a nearly two-minute commercial during the NBA Finals. The spot opened with a dark room and audio clips of newscasters discussing the emissions scandal. It didn’t explain what had happened, just that “dissatisfied customers” were “filing complaints” against “the world’s largest car manufacturer.” Then, there were a few seconds of silence.

“We chose very intentionally to have a blank screen,” says Jan Jacobs, co-founder and co-chief creative officer of Johannes Leonardo, the advertising agency that created the spot. “It was going to be very difficult to describe what we wanted to convey. We thought it would be better if we just created an emotion,” adds his partner, Leo Premutico.

To express that emotion, Jacobs, Premutico and Risi turned to music. They wanted something from Volkswagen’s cultural heyday in the 1960s — people are stirred by feelings of nostalgia — but nothing too rock ‘n’ roll. This was a sombre commercial about pain and contrition. What about Simon & Garfunkel? Their music often evoked a sense of hopeful melancholy and their 1965 song “The Sound of Silence,” even used darkness and light to contrast feelings of loneliness with unity. “When we heard ‘The Sound of Silence,’ to be honest, this was the first time this has ever happened but the commercial wrote itself,” says Jacobs.

In the ad, which is named “Hello Light,” “The Sound of Silence” plays as a Volkswagen designer, visibly distraught over his company’s failure, tries to imagine its future. After several starts and stops and frustrated sighs, he draws an electric version of VW’s microbus — the colorful, bread loaf-shaped van that was a regular sight in the 1960s, especially at Grateful Dead shows and Woodstock. “My eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light,” Simon sings as the van’s headlights come to life.

Paul Simon had never licensed ‘The Sound of Silence” for commercial use before. He clearly wasn’t against commercials: Simon & Garfunkel songs had previously been used to sell everything from trucks to cream cheese and “America” had appeared in a previous Volkswagen commercial.

“Not every artist is on board with their songs being used in a commercial, but most are. They know it’s a major revenue stream,” says Risi. (The agency declined to say how much licensing a Paul Simon song costs.) But the fact that Simon had never approved its use gave him pause.

Luckily, Volkswagen has reputation for treating songs with great care in its commercials, thanks largely to its famous 2000 Cabrio commercial that featured Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” The company declined an interview request but issued a statement saying it likes to use “iconic songs that further elevate a great commercial and tell a story.”

To win Simon over, Risi laid out exactly what the commercial aimed to do, who it was for, and how the song would be used. Instead of the standard “rip,” or rough sketch of a commercial that gets made from publicly available video footage, the agency filmed a more complete demo version, timed to the song, and sent it to Simon. Months of back-and-forth emails later, Simon agreed. “The Sound of Silence” would be the voice of Volkswagen’s rebirth.

Johannes Leonardo is Volkwagen’s lead agency in North America will continue to make ads as the company rolls out its electric cars. “Hello Light” won a silver Clio award for “use of music” in a commercial this year.

The agency already followed it up with a previously unreleased demo version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” overlaid with footage of Americans watching the Apollo 11 moon landing to announce the company’s plan to go carbon neutral by 2050.

Securing Bowie’s music was much easier; his estate offered them up him instead of the other way around.