LESSONS FROM VW: If You’re Gonna Be Controversial, Do Your Homework First

One last thought on Super Bowl ads…

Many people felt Volkswagen’s controversial “Get Happy” ad was one of Super Bowl XLVII’s best. Certainly, it was the most buzzed-about, thanks to the criticism levied at it by several big-name advertising pundits, who thought its basic Minnesotan-talking-Rasta premise was racist. There was even some speculation about whether it would be pulled from the broadcast.

Frankly, I don’t think VW was ever all that worried. Of course they knew the ad was potentially controversial, and they wanted it that way—because of the millions in free publicity the controversy would draw. However, to hedge their bets, VW did extensive pre-testing of the ad with actual Jamaicans, who loved it. They also had Jamaican reggae icon Jimmy Cliff (who provided the soundtrack) and other reggae musicians on board ahead of time. A 90-sec accompanying spot was done to further bolster VW’s humanist and non-racist karma. (Take-away: people of all shapes and colors can be uptight a-holes, and could benefit from the island spirit of happiness.) Cliff’s Facebook postings underlined this message, and gained VW thousands of online supporters.

I’m not sure that Volkswagen had the Jamaican Tourism Board in their pockets prior to the controversy, but they certainly made it socially acceptable for the Board to support this campaign. So when all the stuffed-shirt pundits hit them with the not-unexpected cries of racism, Volkswagen not only had a very credible defense, but also a pretty good sense for what public opinion would be. The anti-talking head backlash became immediately apparent, and the Jamaican Tourism Board’s public support (and subsequent promotional tie-in) just put the icing on the cake. 

While the “Get Happy” ad was a gamble to some extent, it was a smart gamble and one with a very high upside. (Hell they even scored digital ink on the coveted B+L website!) My takeaway is this: if you’re going to be controversial, do your homework first—and get your allies in place before you need them.

A pretty good approach even if you’re not being controversial, say I.

Oh and by the way: Did you notice…the Volkswagen used in the spot has Wisconsin plates?