Commentary

Clean Diesel, The Pope, And VW's Big Cheat

Earlier this week, the Environmental Protection Agency broke news about a shocking corporate deception: that Volkswagen, the world’s second-largest carmaker, deliberately rigged software for its diesel cars sold in the U.S. so they could pass tough emissions tests -- while, during normal driving conditions, actually emitting up to 40 times more pollution than legally allowed.

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.

advertisement

advertisement

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.

7 comments about "Clean Diesel, The Pope, And VW's Big Cheat".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Don Perman from self, September 25, 2015 at 12:30 p.m.

    An excellent column, pulling together such diverse themes. And of course, funny and witty all through. Thanks for the fine read.

  2. Suzanne Rampton from Rampton Research, September 25, 2015 at 12:43 p.m.

    An compelling comparison, indeed, Ms. Lippert!  When I was in college, in the 60s, VW was very much an iconoclastic symbol of my generation … whether the cute and thrifty little bug (an easy-peasy “park” in the Haight) or the weed-aroma’d oft mattress-lined van.  And post-college, when I was a toddler in the ad business, VW symbolized everything that could be “right” and so satisfying with both a product and its advertising.  Spare, smart, unassuming, funny, peaceful and friendly.  It’s somehow immensely sad to me to see the car and the brand (at least as I knew it) crash and burn.  But then, it will hopefully mean an end to those insipid Golden Sister ads, which apparently represent what I understand to be the Millennials’ current view my generation.  I suppose, for that, I will try to be grateful. 

  3. Jane Farrell from Freelance, September 25, 2015 at 1:15 p.m.

    It's just stunning to me that a corporation could be so deliberately deceptive, and that their deception damaged the environment. Thanks for the smart article, and for contrasting VW's dishonesty with the Pope's speech. Unfortunately, I don't know whether the corporations of this world are ready to hear him. 

  4. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners, September 25, 2015 at 2:37 p.m.

    Is it possible that the analogy is sonewhat different?  A large and powerful entity creates something seemingly charming and environmentally friendly in order to fool us into believing that the behemoth -- despite its murderous and regressive history -- is actually benign?

  5. Alan Wasserstrom from None, September 26, 2015 at 11:34 a.m.

    I thought this was a very fine article contrasting the evils that corporations can do and the messages of the pope. What impressed me the most was the recognition of the role the justice department may play under the new Attorney General Lynch. That is her apparent new policy of prosecuting the humans behind corporate misdeeds,not merely fines to the corporate entity. if that policy takes place perhaps we will see less of this atrocious behavior.

  6. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, September 26, 2015 at 5:20 p.m.

    Alan-- Yes, that peanut exec who was sentenced to 28 years in prison for covering up a salmonella problem is an interesting case. Then there was the GM thing with ignition that killed 100 people that GM covered up.
    This is different-- more than a deliberate cover up, it was an intentional cheat from the very start.. We don't know how many people were injured over the years by toxins released in the atmosphere from these diesel cars. It was all part of a rush on VW's part to surpass Toyota sales in the U.S. It will be interesting to see if anyone goes to prison. 

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 13, 2015 at 8:03 p.m.

    Darth Vader invades for reals. Do not think it was an accident that VW used that character. WOUldn't we like to know that back story. And Claudia: Good Catch. Barbara: Brings it altogether as you do so well. On the other hand, their investors and creditors' right hands must be itching real bad.

Next story loading loading..