TV & Streaming

Why Volkswagen’s first Super Bowl ad in 10 years leans into emotion and nostalgia

“You only go to the stage if you’ve got something to say,” a marketing exec at the automaker said.
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Volkswagen

· 4 min read

In 2011, Volkswagen aired one of the most memorable ads in modern Super Bowl history: “The Force,” where a child donning a Darth Vader costume is convinced of the powers of the dark side. Time Magazine said it “changed Super Bowl commercials forever,” and as of 2015, it was the most shared Super Bowl ad ever, according to USA Today.

A couple years after that ad ran, the German automaker vanished from the national Super Bowl stage for a decade—until Sunday’s game, when Volkswagen, like Palpatine, will return, becoming one of the relatively few car brands slated to advertise in the game this year.

Why the hiatus? It just hadn’t felt natural to do another national Super Bowl campaign until now, according to Rachael Zaluzec, SVP of customer experience and brand marketing for Volkswagen of America. This year, that changed: The ad, called “An American Love Story,” is timed around the brand’s 75th anniversary in the US, along with the release of a couple of new models.

“You only go to the stage if you’ve got something to say, and we have a lot of things to say this year,” Zaluzec told Marketing Brew.

Throwback: Volkswagen started discussing this year’s commercial more than six months ago, according to Zaluzec. Creative concepting for the spot started around mid-September, although the buy wasn’t confirmed internally until Q4, Zaluzec said.

A two-minute cut, set to the reprise of Neil Diamond’s “I Am… I Said,” features a montage of scenes showing Volkswagens throughout American history—including references to Woodstock, scenes from the Herbie movie franchise, and the iconic “punch buggy” scene from The Simpsons. There’s even a callback to “The Force” (both ads were directed by Lance Acord). It’s all very nostalgic.

The ad is meant to “ignite the love for the brand,” said Jonathan Santana, ECD at the creative agency Johannes Leonardo that worked on the spot. It’s also designed to put Volkswagen owners “at the epicenter of our messaging strategy,” Zaluzec said. A shorter 60-second version will air during the third quarter of the game.

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Driving against traffic: In the spot, there’s hardly any dialogue, and there’s not a single celebrity (unless you count Bart and Lisa Simpson and Herbie), despite the fact that celebs have become mainstays of some of the most successful Super Bowl commercials over the years.

“Ever the contrarian, VW is going to twist when others are doing the usual,” Santana said, later adding that he thinks “celebrity spots can almost get in the way of the brand and the brand message.”

Diamonds on the road: The ad’s song choice also has deeper meaning. “I Am… I Said” is about a moment in Diamond’s life when he was at a crossroads, Santana said, like Volkswagen was when it first came to the States. Plus, a 75th birthday or anniversary is sometimes known as a “diamond jubilee,” so the choice of artist just makes sense, he said.

The reprise of “I Am… I Said” closes out Diamond’s Stones album, which Volkswagen used since it’s “delivered with so much more presence and emotion,” Santana said.

In my lane: Going the emotional route can be risky in a Super Bowl campaign, but Zaluzec said she didn’t question the choice. Brand sentiment, not sales, is the main KPI for the campaign, and Volkswagen uses data from market research companies like Harris Poll to gauge success with surveys, she said.

“You tell a love story, or you give a love letter, because you want to drive emotion, you want to drive sentiment, you want to have that spark, and you can’t necessarily measure that spark in views,” Zaluzec said. “You can’t measure that spark in immediate sales.”

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