Volkswagen apologizes for their incredibly racist social media ad

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Remember last year when there was suddenly a rash of fashion companies doing racist-as-hell things? And a few years before that, it was magazines (most European) doing racist and neo-colonialist editorials? Well, I hope this is not the 2020 trend: nonsensically racist car ads. Volkswagen released a short commercial this week and it is sort of horrifying:

A big white hand pushing around a black man, then “flicking” him into a cafe called Petit Colon, translated to mean the Little Colonist. And the way the letters for “Der Neue Golf” (The New Golf) appear on screen, they first spell out the German n-word. Volswagen has apologized & pulled the ad. But how the hell did it get made in the first place?

Volkswagen has apologized for airing a racist ad on its social media channels, saying the public outcry was justified, as the company is “horrified” by the commercial. The Buenos Aires-set ad — which has since been pulled — began with a black man in a suit being pushed around by a larger-than-life white hand while cartoon-like sound effects played in the background.

Another large hand then entered the screen and moved the man around like a marionette before flicking him into a café called “Petit Colon,” which translates from French and German to little settler or little colonist in English. The clip was meant to promote the VW Golf 8, and was broadcast on the German automaker’s Instagram and Facebook as part of a larger series meant to depict a “love story” between a black man and a white woman, the BBC reported. The ad quickly drew criticism from social media users who criticized it as “racist garbage,” and others who declared that they would no longer buy Volkswagen vehicles.

“Hatred, racism and discrimination have no place at Volkswagen,” VW’s head of sales and marketing Jürgen Stackmann wrote on Twitter. “In this case, I will personally ensure full transparency and consequences.”

In an additional statement with the company’s head of diversity Elke Heitmüller, Stackmann acknowledged that the ad was racist, and said it “offends every decent person.”

“We understand the public horror about it. Because we are horrified ourselves,” the statement read. “We are ashamed of it and cannot explain [how it came about]… We will make the results and consequences of the investigation public.”

The statement acknowledged how the company was founded in the late 1930s under the Nazi regime, and said that’s exactly why Volkswagen is “resolutely opposing all forms of hatred, agitation and discrimination.”

“We apologize on behalf of Volkswagen AG to the entire public for this film,” it said. “And we especially apologize to those who feel personally hurt by the racist content through their own history.”

According to the BBC, the apology came after the company initially responded to criticism on social media by saying that the origin of the characters was irrelevant, and that it was “surprised and shocked” that the ad was “so misunderstood.”

[From People]

… It was set in Buenos Aires? Argentina was one of the South American countries sending visas and offering citizenship to Nazis at the end of the war. That’s how South America – mainly Argentina and Brazil – became known as havens for Nazi war criminals. South America also has a largely colonialist history. So… yeah. I feel like Volkswagen knew what they were doing and they were trying to be racist. Let me correct that – some people (perhaps not ALL, but definitely SOME) knew what they were doing and they were actively trying to be racist garbage.

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Photos courtesy of Getty.

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66 Responses to “Volkswagen apologizes for their incredibly racist social media ad”

  1. runcmc says:

    I think it’s part of this new, awful marketing goal: make something awful, get headlines, and apologize for it. I really feel like marketing companies are exploiting outrage culture just to get their clients in the press, and we all keep falling for it. I truly believe it’s intentional – not because the companies are racist per se, but because they’re willing to skirt the line for the publicity it offers.

    • Dragon Wise says:

      Agreed. Nothing subtle about this. They knew what they were doing and the outrage it would prompt. So great that macroaggressions sell things! Who cares if they trade on the horrors of Colonialism and racism? 😡

      • Patterned says:

        Also, just to add, there is a very strong racist movement across Europe. They’re using outrage culture to go viral but also “winking” at and appealing to the demographics who use their discontent with income disparity, high immigration intakes, and erosion of democracy thanks to the EU structure (a lefty / bleeding heart liberal who believes the EU is fundamentally undemocratic and economically unjust for the average person) to fuel their preexisting racist view of the world.

    • Sojaschnitzel says:

      This is an equally sound and sad theory. I wonder if that makes it .. better or worse. Doesn’t matter anyway. I hate this timeline with a passion.

      • SomeChick says:

        Worse. Racism is awful. Cynically perpetuating and exploiting it for money is even worse.

        Krups is another company that came from the nazi era. They don’t pull isht lke this. VW knew what they were doing.

    • Cassie says:

      1000 percent agree, RUNCMC.

    • lucy2 says:

      I agree. Something that obviously awful doesn’t go public without many, many people ok’ing it.

    • Patterned says:

      I agree the controversy was deliberate. But there’s a level of detail and effort in this (the lettering, the name of the cafe, the location, etc) that makes it look like there was genuine racism, a real hatred and vitriol, behind the design as well. Couldn’t believe it when I read about it. And how did the marketing agency’s proposal even get approved? Shocking!

      • Hoot says:

        I didn’t believe what I was seeing when I viewed this. I was employed at a well-known ad agency (albeit, end of the 70’s), and the numerous re-checks and approvals necessary before a tv or radio spot aired defied reason. Unless the process has changed drastically, considering the amount of mutual compliance involved there definitely was intent to shock to garner attention/clicks and have VW on everyone’s lips. So blatant. Damn them.

        I must be watching too many WWll movies on TCM this week, because this is reminding me of the portrayal of the Nazi’s racist attitudes toward anyone who wasn’t them (no offense to blonde, light-skinned, blue-eyed people). Again, damn VW.

  2. Audrey says:

    It has to be purposeful. When ever this stuff happens, I just imagine a bunch of people around a conference room actually all approving this crap. It’s never unintentional.

    • Patterned says:

      Yes, and the level of detail just shows there was a genuine racist sentiment on the part of the creators/marketers. The Dolce & Gabbana ad was so mild compared with this one.

  3. Kathryn says:

    VW was founded by literal Nazis. This is sad but hardly surprisingly considering their background. Not sure if most people don’t know or forget

    • Sojaschnitzel says:

      Hello from germany, I did NOT know that and do rest assured, my equally clueless family (bunch of hardcore Volkswagen fanbois) will learn about this. I am raging right now.

      • Jora says:

        I’m German, too, and I’m suprised how you didn’t know this. I mean: Almost all our ancestors were Nazis? All big German companies who profited from WW2 are immensely rich today because they worked for the Nazis/exploited Jewish forced labor/were in the NSDAP. Tengelmann. IG-Farben (today Bayer, BASF) developed Zyklon B and had ten thousands of workers from contretation camps, Hugo Boss also had many concentration camp workers and made uniforms for the Wehrmacht. Deutsche Bank gave the money of all bank accounts by Jewish people to the government (starting already in 1938 before the genocide even started). 20000 forced workers had to work for Volkswagen which produced for the armament industry during that time. Karstadt stole its whole company from a Jewish family. Siemens, Krupp, Diehl, Henkel, BMW, Daimler-Benz, Audi, Leica, Allianz, Commerzbank – all had thousands of forced workers from concentration camps.

    • Digital Unicorn says:

      Ford Motor Company AND General Motors made cars etc.. for the Nazis and both companies have faced many calls over the years to answer for their Nazi involvement.

      Henry Ford was himself a huge Nazi sympathiser – there a photo’s out there of him with Hitler himself.

      I believe the Hugo Boss brand also has its beginnings with the Nazi’s as they made the SS uniforms.

      • Juls says:

        Correct. Not only did Hugo Boss himself design the SS uniforms, he was actually a member of the Nazi party.

    • Veronica S. says:

      Yep. I remember being shocked a couple years back when I reading about how many of the “great innovators” were linked to the Nazi movement, even as just sympathizers. Americans shouldn’t kid themselves – history books have erased most of the reality, but the Third Reich had some pretty hefty support bases in the United States at the time. Trump didn’t bring in a new Nazi regime. He just stirred up the roots already here.

    • MtnMadness says:

      How can a German person NOT KNOW how hitler had a major hand in VWs? Predominantly white hippy kids loved the cheap VWs in 60′s 70s & the brand was a cultural icon- BUT the cars aren’t cheap anymore, marketing to whoever will “spend” I can’t stomach VWs since their bogus low emission scam. Will NEVER go to VW. The company is now obv trying to present as the neo nazi brand anyway. Seriously cancelled AGAIN

    • sa says:

      I once spent an entire afternoon at an airport trying to get a rental car because the place where I’d reserved a car wanted to give me a VW and apparently all the other cars at all the rental places were booked. I couldn’t bring myself to take the VW.

  4. Nuks says:

    I don’t understand this ad on any level. Normally I would chalk it up to batty-ass European sensibilities, but the big white hand makes me think of the Blue Meanie Hand.

    • crogirl says:

      “Normally I would chalk it up to batty-ass European sensibilities”

      As opposed to what? Not racist and sensible Americans?

      The ad is completely disgusting and you can say it without insulting all Europeans.

      • Margles says:

        I mean, I’ve certainly found that European racism is different than American racism. Not worse, but different because it’s a different culture. Same with the racism in South America. Underlines how irrational it is really.

    • Desdemona says:

      Thank you so much for your kindness towards the Europeans.i’m guessing there’s no racism in the USA… starting with the batty-ass President you have.

    • horseandhound says:

      this is one of the worst ads I’ve ever seen. and I’m not even talking about the racism. it’s just an awful ad. terrible. tells you nothing about the product. evokes no emotions. leaves you perplexed and indifferent. not interested in the product at all. what were those ‘creatives’ thinking?

  5. Sojaschnitzel says:

    So hello from germany, I … I really have no words. I .. I took a screenshot and it literally says N-ger when the characters start popping up and there is no forking way that this was a coincidence and it is also hard for me to believe that someone sneaked this in without anyone down the line noticing. What the actual fork.
    Believe you me that this will not sit well with german people. They are going to regret this so badly. We’re idiots around here, but not like that.

    • ooshpick says:

      hey, thanks for writing.
      This is deeply offensive. There has to be some accountability over this. This is what I classify as hate speech which should have some form of punishment. What is the discourse in Germany like?

    • Sue M says:

      I wonder if this ad was produced by the Argentinian or South American subsidiary of VW (sorry, don’t know how the corporation is organized). Maybe with the history of inviting Nazis into Argentina, this is considered okay. Of course it is not in any way ok. The ad clearly was deliberately made to be racist. Simply horrible.

  6. savu says:

    My partner sells and loves Volkswagens and will be horrified when he sees this – I feel bad for the phone calls he may get, only because those calls should be going straight to Volkswagen execs, not the floor-level sales people at independently owned franchises. VW has spent so much ad money trying to rebuild trust after the diesel scandal, and now THIS?! What is wrong with these people?! How could ANYONE have EVER thought this was okay? Who approved this, and what are they saying behind closed doors that ISN’T being made into a commercial?

    • Digital Unicorn says:

      The ad agency should also get flack as they were the ones who came up with the ‘creative’ idea – they should be named and shamed.

  7. Sojaschnitzel says:

    You know what’s worst about this? German twitter is rejecting this, turning the blame around: “This isn’t racist, but you are racist because only racists see racists things in innocent content”. From my rather short research (I cannot handle twitter in large doses) this seems to be the overwhelming thinking.
    Disappointments galore.
    I will have you know that we are all rassists here! Yes, I was as surprised as you are now.

    • Darla says:

      So, this ad will sell cars then.

    • NotHeidisGirl says:

      Another German here. I saw an article about this on a news site a couple of days ago and was scrolling through the comments expecting outrage (as every person with a few brain cells should) but they were all like „what‘s the big deal?“
      People are the worst. I am deeply ashamed of my fellow countrymen.

      • Darla says:

        Heidi, it’s not just your countrymen, this is a global thing. It’s terrifying. It’s on the rise everywhere.

      • Bavarian says:

        you must have ignorexd that 99 % of the other german media that condems it. Seriously

    • Melisande says:

      Twitter is mostly paid actors or bots. I try to ignore Twitter as much as possible.

  8. Darla says:

    I had to watch the ad three times, and also read the article three times, and I still don’t believe this and cannot understand this. I mean, I see it so I believe it, but I don’t believe this could have happened. But it did. this is scary. Just how large of a global far right, racist, nationalist movement is there?

    Enough that this ad would sell cars?

  9. savu says:

    @sojaschnitzel “We’re idiots around here, but not like that.” 😂 Thanks for the laugh!

  10. Mtec says:

    Someone on Twitter even made the connection of how the last flick could be related to the “white power” symbol, which is meant to look like the “ok” sign (index finger tip joined with tip of thumb & the rest 3 fingers up) 👌🏽 so that they can be discretely racist while still showing what they stand for.

    • Greta G says:

      I agree completely! It’s a dog whistle for far right Nationalists. During the Supreme Court hearing of Brett Kavanaugh the woman behind him in a black sleeveless dress put her elbow out & with her other hand made that symbol! I took a screen shot of it! I couldn’t believe she was that obvious sitting behind Kavanaugh. I wish I knew how to upload a picture because I would love for people to see who Kavanaugh really is. The hand gesture is not natural, so it was intentional. That’s how brazen the far right has become. I’m scared. I just tried to copy the picture, but I’m not that IT savvy.

      • SomeChick says:

        It’s out there… I remember this being covered (maybe here) when it happened. They love their inverted “ok” sign because it offers plausible deniability.

        Just as the swastika was stolen from traditional Indian culture and perverted from a positive symbol to a symbol of hate, they are doing the same thing again with “ok.” Pepe the Frog… smaller scale, but same.

  11. Juls says:

    Just FYI everybody. My mechanic told me several years ago to NEVER buy a VW because they are complete garbage. So I would never have bought one anyway even without this garbage commercial for a garbage car.

    • Sammiches says:

      That’s weird because i know many people who have been driving their VWs for years with no major problems. My sister has had her VW for nearly 25 years and it runs like a dream.

    • Bavarian says:

      i am driving some for the last years ..never a Problem. I always swicth between BMW and VW.

  12. LoreleiJade says:

    What I don’t understand is what’s the connection between the car, or buying the car and all the pushing around. What’s their message, other than the obvious we are racist idiots??

  13. Molly says:

    Someone needs to be fired for this. Who cares about an apology? And what advertising company made this?

  14. K-Peace says:

    I’m embarrassed to own a Volkswagen Jetta. My 4th one.—I’ve always loved VW Jettas and always stick with them every time i need a new car. I will now be looking to switch brands the next time i need a new car. Disgusting. WTF were people thinking when this ad was made??!

  15. Reka says:

    After the diesel gate who buys this shitty car? And now this. VW is the garbage of the European car manufacturing. Stop buying VW`s!!!!

  16. Valiantly Varnished says:

    VW is a company founded by Nazis. Literally

  17. L4frimaire says:

    So on top of lying about emissions, they decide to do this BS as well. What are they smoking? Also, the ad is just stupid and makes no sense. Idiots.

  18. Jaded says:

    Last year, VW apologized after CEO Herbert Diess used the expression “Ebit macht frei,” or “Ebit sets you free,” at a management event. Ebit is short for earnings before interest and tax and is a measure of company profits. The phrase sounds similar to “Arbeit macht frei,” which was inscribed on the gates of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

    Angela Merkel should speak to this and I only hope the appropriate heads roll, including the CEO’s.

  19. ItReallyIsYouNotMe says:

    The first time I watched this, It didn’t strike as inherent racism until I heard the context of the name of the store and the slogan spelling out the n word in German. So my question is, how the f—- are these ads getting past focus groups with no one catching on (assuming that it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to get attention which God, I don’t want to believe is true)? I am wondering if these companies are only putting their target consumer into these focus groups? If your target consumer doesn’t include POC, maybe this kind of thing doesn’t get caught? Is the solution to have a focus group that deliberately includes POC to make sure you aren’t putting anything offensive out there?

  20. Faye G says:

    Can black people please just get a break? It’s a pandemic and black/Latino people are disproportionately dying (at least here in the US). Plus they are more likely to be Frontline workers putting their lives at risk. It would be nice if the white chefs, singers, and car companies could just shut up and leave them alone for a sec.

  21. Gina says:

    Don’t forget Audi is a Volkswagon. They are their parent company. You buy an Audi, you’re really buying an expensive VW.

    • Lensblury says:

      Well, not just Audi. Also Skoda, Seat (a spanish company that used to have ties to Fiat until the early 1980s), Bentley, Bugatti, Ducati, Lamborghini, and Porsche, as well as their truck companies MAN and Scania. They all belong to the Volkswagen Group.

  22. Birte says:

    Another German here. I first saw this on Twitter, specifically the Twitter post in In German, linked to above. Definitely widely debated here in Germany, not only in my “bubble”, which is probably left-leaning, but also in major newspapers. definitely criticized: people are outraged.

    Also, it may be my ripe old age of 40, but I do know about the history of Volkswagen and so many other companies that continue to be successful to this very day. We learned about this in school, too. As an aside: What Germans don’t really learn enough about in school, is the extent of Germany’s participation in colonialism. At the end of the day, this lack of knowledge leads to a lot of everyday racism in German society. Lots of microaggressions. And I live in the second largest city, Berlin, which is international enough to know better.

    As for the ad, I also have to wonder if a marketing division in South America was responsible for publishing the spot. Don’t know anything about the set up of the company.

    • Jora says:

      I’m also German and I agree with you. There’s a lack of understanding for the history of colonization, racism and structural discrimination in general here. And yes, maybe because Germany didn’t have many colonies. But you also barely learn anything about their crimes against African people in school, like the genocide against the Herero and Nama (at least we learn a lot about our crimes in WW2). It’s not uncommon that – especially ignorant older Germans – don’t understand why they shouldn’t use the n-word. One must also argue that Germany is not really a diverse country. Yes, in big cities like Berlin or Frankfurt live a lot of PoC. But in Eastern Germany, the former GDR? Very white, especially in the countryside. Famous politicians of Colour of all the big parties? Less than five. It’s also no surprise that the right-winged party here is the second biggest opposition party and very popular mostly in Eastern Germany. Their leader called the Holocaust a small “birdshit” in history compared to the “great things” Germans achieved.

      • Lucretius says:

        Thank you for posting I appreciate the insight and history lesson. It’s good to hear from our German posters!

      • Lady D says:

        Lucretius said it much more eloquently, but yes thanks for taking the time to teach, it’s appreciated. I hope your opposition never makes it into power.

    • Bavarian says:

      really? I only did Realschule and after that FOS but it was in our bavarian curricullum..and iam 48

  23. Pabena6 says:

    I don’t even understand it just as an AD. How is this a car advertisement?! What are they even trying to sell about VW with this nonsense?! If your ad can’t even say, “This is why you should buy this car,” then it really underscores for me that there was no purpose for this beyond the dog whistles. I am so sick of all this racist sh*t — HOW are we going backwards?! For God’s sake, what is wrong with people?!?! So f*cking tired, I can’t even describe it.

    • Lensblury says:

      Thank you! It was all, “please just talk about the ad and make it go viral.” Nothing else behind it.

  24. Lara says:

    You know what is really smart? Airing a racist ad during a global pandemic when no one is buying cars and the only thing people have to do is watch endless amounts of tv and go browsing through social media. If I were someone who hated VW, this is exactly the ad I would create to sink their brand. What do they have to gain economically from this? Is targeted advertising for racists so lucrative that it offsets losses in sales by the majority of people who are not neo-Nazis?

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