The EPA ordered the German firm to fix the affected vehicles, which included diesel TDI versions of the Golf, Jetta, Beetle, and Passat -- all of which car owners love for their reliability, great gas mileage, and zip.
Simultaneously, the media was covering Pope Francis’ first visit to America, and his clear focus, since his June encyclical, on global warming.
And I couldn’t help but see these sudden parallels of environmental good and evil dramatized as the opening of a cheesy B-movie, with “Godfather”-like intercutting of scenes:
Open on the Pope, speaking to rapt crowds, as soaring liturgical music swells. In his halting English, in a sweet, low voice, Il Papa declares: “Climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history.” The camera pans to the faces of cheering crowds and upward to the clear blue sky.
Cut to Wolfsburg (a name you can’t make up), Lower Saxony, Germany, at Volkswagen headquarters, and a dark boardroom. The liturgical music is still heard in the background, although it’s now ramped up to sound menacing as we see men in dark suits sitting around a modern table, listening to a woman’s voice on speakerphone. We hear her speaking German and see subtitles floating on the screen, translating words like “screw-up” and “Minister of Traffic.”
It turns out the men are getting an earful from Angela Merkel, and they glare at each other, cheeks slightly twitching, and bark responses like “California” -- the only word we can understand in English, spoken with the exaggerated five syllables that Schwarzenegger uses. We see subtitles for “class-action suit” and “ 6.5 billion Euro set aside.” Finally, one board member says “Herr Winterkorn,” and makes the throat-slash sign with his hand on his own neck; music crescendos.
In real life, by now CEO Martin Winterkorn has “resigned,” and his replacement has just been named, Porsche CEO Matthias Müller. But the extent of the deception has deepened as officials in Europe -- where one-third of all cars have diesel engines -- started their own investigations, and the cheating software was determined to have been installed in up to 11 million cars worldwide.
In the U.S., the EPA could end up levying fines of over $37,500 per vehicle -- as high as $18 billion total. The Department of Justice is also contemplating criminal charges. And then, of course, there are the individual and class-action suits that will come from outraged owners of cars sold as “clean diesel” when they are in fact the biggest polluters out there.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen stock has tanked.
The sheer shortsightedness of such a blatant corporate cheat from such an otherwise buttoned-up company is a real head-scratcher.
Talk about “Think Small” and “Lemon,” the titles of the hugely iconic (and now hugely ironic) print ads for the Volkswagen Beetle in the early 1960s. The ads, from Doyle Dane Bernbach, actually started the creative revolution, and turned the conventional American ideal -- that cars should be big, luxurious, gas-guzzlers -- on its head.
More subtly, as written by Julian Koenig, an American Jew, the “Think Small” campaign paved the way for U.S. acceptance of the “People’s Car,” an ugly little bug that at the time still conjured visions of the horrors of Nazi Germany. The idea of using superior German engineering as a selling point was still to come.
In this light, the “Lemon” ad seems especially ironic. The copy explains that the particular “lemon” shown was rejected at the factory for a slight blemish on the glove box. It read, “this preoccupation with detail means the VW lasts longer and requires less maintenance, by and large, than other cars. (It also means a used VW depreciates less than any other car.)”
That beautiful, straightforward copy sings to this day (Can you imagine a “by and large” included in any ad today?) And certainly, it established the idea that economy, reliability, as well as smart, honest, funny advertising were also part of the Volkswagen DNA.
Over the years, the ads have been lighthearted and delightful, as sweet as the flower vase installed on the redesigned Beetle.
Lately, VW has set its sights on becoming the most eco-friendly car brand in the world, running a “Think Blue” environmental sustainability campaign in Europe and Russia.
Earlier this month, I wrote about a series of ads for VW featuring the Golden Sisters, created to dispel myths (“Old Wives’ Tales”) about diesel: that it makes cars clunky, stinky, or that the gas was hard to find. I couldn’t figure out why cars with such distinctly attractive features were being sold with such broad, “Golden Girl"-like humor. Indeed, that was precisely the problem -- that VW could not make a car that met EPA standards and also featured such snappy acceleration and great mileage. (Or at least they couldn’t do that at a price that allowed for any profit.)
Now the company is about to give up more than one year’s profits.
When news of the scandal broke, I was so outraged that I thought VW could never survive such an intentional, widespread black mark on its record. Now it looks as though I was being naïve. It will, because, along with many Wall Street firms and banks dealing in collateral mortgages in 2008, the company is too big to fail.
Meanwhile, the Pope’s visit continues to go swimmingly, as he inspires people of all religious stripes to treat others -- as well as our earth -- with greater kindness.
And, mindful of that sort of compassion, I have a suggestion for Volkswagen: Think Small.