VW’s fall to the dark side was cryptically foretold in the form of “Mini Vader”.

A Filmic Façade: Volkswagen & the Emissions Scandal

How a company celebrated for its fuel-efficient vehicles and clean diesel used film as a tool of deception

Long one of Germany’s most celebrated and trusted brands, Volkswagen Group has forged a distinct and honest identity over its seventy-eight-year history thanks in part to its use of film. Volkswagen most often utilizes film for advertising its vehicles — vehicles increasingly associated with fuel efficiency and, as a result, environmental sustainability. The Volkswagen emissions scandal of September 2015 only helped to complicate the automotive manufacturer’s relationship to the environment even more, revealing the truth of the context within which its films had been viewed. The company’s use of film, too, became complicated after the scandal, emphasizing its reliance upon the medium for the construction and maintenance of the public’s perception of their brand.

The Volkswagen brand, strongly associated with reliable German engineering, has earned its reputation through customer satisfaction and advertising, both reinforced with the use of film. Their commercials can be characterized as humourous and lighthearted, intended for a large market: the average vehicle buyer. These advertisements can be interpreted as successful given the company’s status as holder of the largest market share in Europe, and ranks as the eighth-largest company in the world and second-largest motor vehicle producer in the world (first in terms of car sales).

The success of their use of film is evident in one of the most famous ads of all time, “The Force”. The 2011 Super Bowl ad — dubbed “the ad that changed Super Bowl commercials forever” by Time Magazine — features a young boy dressed as Darth Vader who is shocked to discover that he has successfully used the Force on a Volkswagen Passat when the vehicle starts at his command. Meanwhile the boy’s father, it is revealed, is actually responsible after having started the car via remote. The ad has officially been shared online more than any other ad in history, having been viewed 17 million times prior to the game and 63 million times in total on YouTube alone. The widespread appeal and enjoyment of the ad can be attributed to its humourous and lighthearted nature more so than any focus on the details of the vehicle itself.

Aside from commercials, Volkswagen’s films tend to be informative in nature, focusing on production practices and company goals. These goals are stated, for instance, in a 2014 Volkswagen Group film on environmental awareness, within which then-CEO Martin Winterkorn says, “Our aim is to harmonize ecology, economic success, and social responsibility….We aim to make Volkswagen the most successful, fascinating, and sustainable car company in the world by 2018.” The video explains that vehicle painting is an area where the company has successfully halved its energy consumption and reduced its paint-related emissions by more than ninety percent. The company is also aiming to make production processes twenty-five percent more environmentally friendly by 2018. Despite its relatively small viewership in comparison to commercials, films such as this inform the public of the company’s long-term visions, thus shaping public perception and influencing viewers to associate Volkswagen with environmental consciousness.

These conceptions of the automaker, however, precede the damaging emissions scandal of September 2015, a controversy that significantly shifted the brand’s identity. The emissions scandal was sparked by the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) issuing of a notice of violation. Volkswagen was found to have violated the Clean Air Act after its turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel engine vehicles were found to release nitrogen oxide (NOₓ) levels up to forty times higher than the legal limit. These TDI diesel engines have been purposely programmed to recognize when the vehicle is undergoing laboratory emissions testing, at which point the vehicle activates the emissions controls necessary to maintain a legal output of NOₓ, thus eluding detection. An environmental research letter by IOPscience (Institute of Physics’ online journals) estimated that the excess emissions will cause 59 early deaths in the U.S., while similar studies by The New York Times and the Associated Press estimate that between 16 and 106 deaths have already been directly caused by the raised levels of NOₓ. Volkswagen was initially rewarded for seemingly selling a more environmentally friendly vehicle, receiving “green car” subsidies and tax exemptions in the U.S.

The scandal prompted the resignation of CEO Martin Winterkorn, but not before he issued a public statement via film. Despite an alleged thirty management figures at Volkswagen being aware of the program, Winterkorn stated, “At present we do not yet have all the answers to all the questions, but we are working hard to find out exactly what happened.” Volkswagen and Winterkorn utilized a video statement to ask for trust and promise “the greatest possible openness and transparency” throughout the aftermath of the violation. Winterkorn’s resignation occurred the next day, while Volkswagen’s stock and public approval both dropped significantly. Winterkorn’s statement lacked any mention of Volkswagen’s ecological, sustainability, or social responsibility goals and the implications that the excess emissions have on said aims, instead opting to focus on customer and employee interests.

Approximately eleven million vehicles dating between 2009 and 2015 models have been recalled, including 480 000 vehicles in the U.S. directly affected by the EPA violation. Eight different diesel models were fit with the program, among them the 2012 Passat — the very same model advertised in “The Force”. The context within which the extremely effective commercial was viewed appears to have been, in retrospect, a façade and a distraction from the harmful and illegal truth. Volkswagen successfully employed film to convey an image of humour, lightheartedness, and trustworthiness. The commercial’s inclusion of both an endearing child and Star Wars references provided familiarity, likability, and relatability, ultimately relying on the narrative to create a memorable commercial rather than relying on the vehicle itself. Viewing the commercial in a post–emissions scandal context renders Volkswagen’s use of a child in a Darth Vader costume as a form of manipulation, attempting to represent both the car and the brand as far more innocent than they ever really were.

In early 2015, Volkswagen launched an ad campaign aiming to dispel common myths associated with diesel engines. The commercials featured three elderly sisters in a Volkswagen diesel-powered vehicle humourously discussing an “old wives’ tale” related to diesel. Contrary to dated beliefs, diesel cars can be fast, quiet, clean, and stench-free, with surprisingly easy access to diesel refueling stations, the ads collectively argued. Much like it did to “The Force,” the emissions scandal has completely altered the viewing experience of these commercials, suggesting the notion that Volkswagen diesel-powered vehicles are clean ought to be critiqued and considered blatant false advertising unbeknownst to the public.

However, the company has attempted to disable any re-viewing of these commercials in a post–emissions scandal context, having removed nearly all traces of any TDI diesel engine vehicles from both television and company social media accounts. Where Volkswagen once used the commercials to inform and entertain, while reaffirming the reliability and innovation of its brand, its removal of the videos signifies an attempt to reconstruct and edit the company’s misleading use of film. Volkswagen’s use of film can be understood not only in the films’ creation, but in their concealment.

The rate of the company’s production of films has come to a relative halt. In opting to wait for the scandal and its aftermath to subside in the public eye, Volkswagen is implicitly acknowledging the new context within which audiences will perceive their commercials and informational films. At the same time, there is a suggested awareness and respect for the power of film, equally capable of wielding great disadvantages as it is great advantages.

A company celebrated for its fuel efficiency, clean diesel, and leadership role in motor vehicle sustainability will now be held accountable for deceiving the public and harming the environment. Film was used as a manipulative tool and façade, enabling deception. What remains to be seen is what film’s role will be for Volkswagen going forward. Will it attempt to utilize environmental messages as a selling point, despite its history? After all, as an automotive company, Volkswagen will likely be limited by imposed environmental restrictions for the foreseeable future. While the emissions scandal suggests that Volkswagen views its environmental responsibilities as burdens rather than moral obligations, it can always use films to influence the public’s perception and suggest otherwise. The public’s reaction, however, all depends on context.

*Written November 9ᵗʰ, 2015; edited January 15ᵗʰ, 2021.

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Connor Sziklasi

Connor Sziklasi

• Freelance writer & anthropology graduate student