- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

Crash isn’t turning into cash for Volkswagen.

Virtually anyone who has watched television in recent months has seen Volkswagen’s “crash commercials.” The ads come in four versions, showcasing the German automaker’s Jetta and Passat sedans, but the theme doesn’t vary: A driver and his passengers banter lightheartedly before they are slammed by another car.

Moments later, a shaken but unhurt passenger stands next to the wreckage and exclaims, “Holy …,” before the scene cuts off.

The message is simple: Jettas and Passats are safe cars.

Although the “Safety Happens” campaign has grabbed public attention, sales of the two models have slumped.

Volkswagen has sold 3 percent fewer Jettas in the U.S. since April, when the Jetta crash ads debuted, than the same period in 2005.

Passat sales have decreased almost 19 percent since August, when the first Passat ad ran, compared with last year.

Volkswagen blames the downward sales trend on an inventory problem. Both models sold exceptionally well during the first few months of the year, but the automaker had difficulty keeping up with demand, said Keith Price, public relations manager for product and technology at Volkswagen of America.

“We’ve been constrained by that inventory situation,” he said.

The campaign has run sporadically in the past eight months, so it’s difficult to determine how much the ads may have influenced sales, Mr. Price said.

With car sales sluggish industrywide during the second half of 2006, sales of Jettas and Passats are in line with, or exceed, industry norms, he said.

“This has been a good year for us,” Mr. Price said. “Our focus is on the year-to-date [sales] and the fact that both of those vehicles are considerably ahead of where they were a year prior.”

From January through November, Jetta sedan sales were up 5.7 percent compared with the same period last year, while Volkswagen sold 27.4 percent more Passat sedans this year than in the first 11 months of 2005.

The commercials, produced by Miami advertising agency Crispin Porter and Bogusky, don’t rely on trick photography. Real actors rode inside the cars during the collisions, and all four ads were shot in one take.

Equally unique is the company’s use of safety as a theme, rather than the traditional automotive advertising approach that stresses style, function or practicality, advertising and automotive specialists say.

“Coming from a company that talked about ‘Drivers Wanted’ — their previous ad campaign — and then to see a safety campaign is a bit unusual,” said Gary Arlen, president of the Bethesda media research and consulting firm Arlen Communications Inc. “It probably took people awhile to absorb it. I know I had to watch it a few times until I recognized the message.”

The message is delivered without being preachy, Mr. Arlen added.

“It isn’t so much like a lecture from an old school marm telling you to buckle your seat belt and drive safely,” he said. “They way they’re produced — a little slice of real life — it’s told in an effective way.”

Not everyone agrees that safety is an effective marketing message.

“Safety is one of the features people look at when they purchase a vehicle, but it’s only one,” said Erich Merkle, director of forecasting for IRN Inc., a Grand Rapids, Mich., automotive consulting firm. “I don’t think the ad has really helped Volkswagen at all. I think the bigger issue is that the market is still an incredibly competitive place.”

Other compact cars, particularly the Honda Civic, have scored as well as or better than the Jetta and Passat on crash tests, but are less expensive, Mr. Merkle said.

“Volkswagen is OK, but it’s not the best product on the market,” he said.

Although the company says the ads can be shocking and even disturbing, it is pleased with the campaign.

The ads “certainly have exceeded our expectations in terms of bringing new people to the brand,” Mr. Price said.

The commercials will air until at least the end of the month, but the company won’t comment on whether they will continue into next year.

Volkswagen has no plans to produce more of the crash ads, Mr. Price said.

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