Slate's Ad Report Card: Obey Your VW Fast

Slate media critic Seth Stevenson reviews the new television ad campaign for Volkswagen. In the ads, a small, toy-like personification of a driver's "fast" compels VW owners to enjoy the open throttle — and sometimes act like bratty frat brothers.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now to the business of advertising. Volkswagen has a new, fast version of its GTI sports coupe, and it apparently wanted a fast new approach to its TV spots as well. Seth Stevenson, ad critic for the online magazine, Slate says, Slow down.

Mr. SETH STEVENSON (Media critic, Slate Magazine): Let me say upfront that men under the age of 25 comprise my least favorite advertising demographic. Marketing aimed at this cohort tends to exhibit an adversarial stance toward women, a thoughtless disregard for societal harmony, some supremely awful taste in food and clothing, and just a general bone headedness. When you bring those qualities to car ads, you get a campaign centered around what Volkswagen calls, My Fast.

My Fast is something like a little devil that appears on the hero's shoulder in a movie to talk him into doing the wrong thing.

(Soundbite of speeding car)

Mr. STEVENSON: We see a young guy and his girlfriend driving at high speed. Her hair whips around in her face.

Unidentified Woman: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) Honey, can you roll the window up a little bit?

(Soundbite of car)

Unidentified Man #1: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) My Fast likes the windows down.

Mr. STEVENSON: My Fast, by the way, is shown in these spots as a frightening little black gargoyle perched on the backseat.

Unidentified Man #1: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) Down, down.

Mr. STEVENSON: Now, the unfortunate woman continues to plead her case.

Unidentified Woman: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) Why do we always have to drive with the windows down? It's cold.

Unidentified Man #1: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) Down, down.

Unidentified Woman: (Volkswagen commercial clip) My hair's getting all messed up.

Unidentified Man #2: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) Sweetie. It's really hard for me to enjoy the sound of the engine with all that yakking.

(Soundbite of car speeding up)

Unidentified Man #1: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) Sometimes, My Fast doesn't get along with my girlfriend.

Mr. STEVENSON: So, a young man hears a voice in his head, which spurs him to drive recklessly and to mistreat his girlfriend. I have news. That's not his fast he's making friends with. It's his testosterone.

Myself, I'm trying hard to make friends with my ageist disgust, because given the population bulge in this demographic, we can expect a steady stream of young dude pandering for the next several years. As for this spot, it's funny, only a little bit offensive, and totally appropriate to the product at hand. It's the kind of car that appeals to hyper-aggressive young knuckleheads. And so, the other three spots in this campaign center on speeding, reckless driving in inclement weather, and more woman hating.

Unidentified Man #1: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) Just dropping off some videos, and running by the cleaners.

Unidentified Woman: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) Great. I'll go with you.

Unidentified Man #2: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) My Fast likes to keep things light.

Unidentified Man #1: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) Pumpkin, I'd rather not carry the extra weight.

Unidentified Man #2: (In Volkswagen commercial clip) My Fast makes it hard to have a relationship.

Mr. STEVENSON: This strategy makes perfect sense when a car's main selling point is horsepower per dollar. But there's a problem. Volkswagen told me this campaign and the hot hatch GTI itself are now considered nothing less than the soul of Volkswagen. Which would be great if VW's customer base were composed entirely of Sigma Chi brothers. But what happens when it comes time to market the Jetta to sensible grownups of both sexes? Or the Passat Wagon to families?

These new spots are a radical departure for the Volkswagen Vibe. Remember its recent great spots, like the legendary "da da da" ad, in which a pair of amiable slackers puttered around in their Golf on a lazy afternoon?

(Soundbite of the song, "Da Da Da")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Da, da, da. Da, da, da.

Mr. STEVENSON: Those were the salad days of VW advertising. The agency that made that spot, Arnold Worldwide, was unceremoniously dumped this past fall, after a decade-long relationship with Volkswagen. I can't help but prefer the warmth and humanity of that older spot. I'd much rather hang out with its laid- back, quirky protagonists, than with these chumpish, GTI speed burners.

Since I'm sure the GTI sales will spike, I have to give these ads an A minus. But I'm withholding judgment on the overall VW campaign until I see what they do with the grownup cars.

BRAND: Opinion from Seth Stevenson. He writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine, Slate.

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