Fear factor

Volkswagen takes a risky approach with TV ad vividly depicting crash


Flipping through television channels at her Belcamp home on a recent evening, Hattye Knight wasn't sure what caught her attention first: the sickening crunch of metal and shattering glass as an SUV slammed into a smaller sedan, or the jarring visual of the car's occupants smashing into inflated air bags.

Either way, Knight said, she was transfixed, catching her breath as the sedan spun around and exhaling only when the two couples inside, who had been bantering about a movie they had just seen, emerged shaken but OK - and the words "Safe happens" flashed over the scene.

It was only a commercial, viewers such as Knight were relieved to discover, but a shocking one.

The ad is one of two that began airing last month, featuring graphic crash scenes as a way of trumpeting the Volkswagen Jetta's 4-star safety rating. The ads have grabbed attention - not all of it positive.

"It was kind of scary," said Knight, who works for Harford County schools. "It was a little violent. I thought it was live."

"Our patients are very upset about those commercials," said J. Gayle Beck, professor of psychology at the Motor Vehicle Accident Research Clinic at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. "I've heard everything from `I cried for an hour after I saw the commercial' to `I'm never buying a Volkswagen.'

"I'm not in sales or marketing," said Beck, whose center treats car-accident victims for post-traumatic stress disorder, "but I'm sure that was not the intended effect [Volkswagen] wanted."

Not all reactions have been that negative - Knight said the ad made her consider buying the Jetta - but message boards on car Web sites and Web blogs have denounced VW for using scare tactics to sell cars.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that viewers, concerned about occupants of the Jettas in the commercials, called Volkswagen to check on their condition.

The German auto company has a long history of catchy commercials, but they have tended to take a cool, ironic tone - think FahrvergnM-|gen, or the two guys cruising to the "Da Da Da" song.

Its two new spots are a sharp departure from the norm for auto ads, which more commonly feature sleek cars hugging the curves on a road or rolling luxuriously up to a restaurant or resort.

Power of shock

Shocking images have a history of turning up in commercials, particularly in public service ads against smoking or drugs, or for political campaigns - perhaps the most famous being the 1964 commercial than Lyndon B. Johnson ran against Barry Goldwater, showing a little girl counting as she picks petals off a daisy until she is interrupted after "nine" by an exploding atomic bomb.

Advertising experts say most automobile commercials tend to veer away from using crashes to sell cars.

Instead, if the company wants to make a point about safety, it will use warm scenes of children and families that drivers imagine they are protecting by picking such a sturdy, reliable vehicle.

And when crashes are shown, companies such as Mercedes and Volvo have used crash-test dummies rather than humans to demonstrate how safe their cars are.

In its current campaign, Volkswagen used stunt drivers in the crashes, said Karen Marderosian, director of marketing at Volkswagen.

"It causes people to stop and watch and then watch them again," Marderosian said. "I think that what it has done is make people stop and think about what can happen.

"The fact is, [car crashes] happen to people every day. We're telling people that we think about crashes every day and that you need to prepare for it."

In the glut of TV images that bombard viewers nowadays, companies are searching for new ways to make their product commercials stand out from all the clutter.

Volkswagen's use of such graphic images of real people in a realistic crash, however, could backfire.

Shaking things up

"Fear typically doesn't work in advertising," said Bruce Vanden Berg, a professor of advertising at Michigan State University. "But at the same time, is this fear or is it shock? Volkswagen sales are down in recent years, the brand is in trouble, they score low on reliability studies and they know they're in trouble.

"They have to shake things up," Vanden Berg said. "They are trying to do something to jolt you. So they're using a taboo in car advertising: don't show crashes and don't use fear. Will it work? That remains to be seen, but it's a risk."

Marderosian said the crash commercials will continue running through next week, and then the next phase of commercials, which depict the type of people who drive Jettas, will follow.

Mixed messages

One might think Volkswagen is suffering from an identity crisis when comparing some of its recent ad campaigns for different car models, experts say.

Are they saying Volkswagen drivers embrace speed? In a recent commercial, the Volkswagen GTI's spokesdemon, which urges a guy to tell his girlfriend to stop yakking so he can hear the sound of his car engine, seems to say so. "Make friends with your fast," the commercial urges.

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