Don't expect an apology from Kerri Martin, Volkswagen of America's director of brand innovation, for the VW brand's slew of controversial commercials.
The feisty 36-year-old executive says the same thing VW dealers do: U.S. sales were up 35.6 percent in May compared with a year earlier and up 23.6 percent for the first five months of the year.
The latest round of VW commercials for the Jetta and Passat are less controversial, if not tame, compared with the initial spots run this spring from the brand's new agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky of Miami.
But Martin warns observers not to take the new ones as a sign that VW is retrenching because of media criticism. She says VW hasn't received negative feedback from customers.
Martin says it's good to make people think and challenge convention. "Whenever you can ignite a conversation with a consumer, you have done your job," she says.
"The reality is it is so cluttered that you have to break through the white noise. VW has always done that."
Martin was instrumental in bringing Crispin Porter to VW last year, ousting longtime VW shop Arnold Worldwide. Martin worked with Crispin Porter while launching BMW's Mini brand. Martin was Mini's marketing communication manager before moving to VW in April of 2005.
The latest campaign is called the Jetta Report. It pokes fun at stereotypes of what the car's owners do -- dance, do yoga, hike.
"Everybody knows you guys know how to dance," says one friend to the other in one of the three TV spots.
"You mean all us Jetta guys?" says the other. "I thought you were my friend."
The commercial cuts to a white Jetta and a man dressed in a wild outfit -- gray sport jacket, white shirt and red tie atop lederhosen and white socks to the calf -- who says: "Stereotyping is stupid."
Low ego emissions
On the Passat side, a commercial tries to make the point that owners "have the lowest ego emissions of German engineered cars," Martin says.
The commercial opens with a man in a Rolls-Royce yelling, "Because my daddy never hugged me" through a bullhorn. Another driver shouts, "Because I make a lot of money and I want everyone to know it."
A couple in a Passat -- who also have a bullhorn -- look at each other in wonder and then throw the bullhorn out the window.
"They are confident in their own skin and don't really need to say anything," Martin says.
Compare that to the recently ended "Safe Happens" campaign to promote the 2006 Jetta's crash test rating. This spring, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Jetta its top rating in its side-impact crash test.
In one commercial, two couples in a Jetta are discussing a movie they have just seen when an SUV slams into the side of their car. The four are seen outside the wrecked white car, shaken but not hurt.
The commercials captured network TV attention. That seems to thrill rather than trouble Martin.
"We wanted to find an innovative way in keeping with VW's history of innovative marketing to tell the safety story," she says.
Helga and friends
Critics also seized on the "Unpimp mein auto" commercials. In the spots, highly modified cars are destroyed by a German dominatrix named Helga and a wacky scientist type, then replaced by the GTI. The campaign was panned by ad critics.
But Helga was such as hit online that VW may bring her from Germany to a VW customer gathering in New Jersey this July called Waterfest.
Perhaps the most criticized effort was the GTI "Fast" campaign. That featured a demonic looking creature that urged the owner to drive fast, among other things.
VW has just begun formal studies to gauge the results of its advertising. Dealers say more shoppers are coming to their showrooms.
"Our business is up 20 percent (year-to-date), and the only thing VW is doing different is advertising," says Bob Grace, head of the VW dealer council and owner of Southpoint Volkswagen in Baton Rouge, La. "The product is the same. It has to be related to advertising.
"It's amazing how many customers came in after the crash ads -- several turned into sales."
Bill Donaldson, owner of Donaldson Volkswagen in Sayville, N.Y., says he is struck by how many people have seen the commercials.
"It has definitely helped our business," he says. "We are back on a lot of people's minds. I've had people say good and bad, but they're getting people talking about VW again."
You may e-mail Diana T. Kurylko at [email protected]