Volkswagen admits its ‘ethical judgment’ is not good enough

VW plans to create a board with diversity experts outside of the creative process, who will review creative content for potentially offensive and discriminatory elements.

Volkswagen advert

Volkswagen (VW) has unveiled plans to improve its marketing processes following strong criticism of an Instagram advert it recently published, which was deemed to be racist.

The advert featured a light-skinned hand flicking a dark-skinned man away from a Volkswagen Golf 8, before flicking him into a restaurant with the name, ‘Petit Colon’, above the entrance. ‘Petit Colon’ translates from German into ‘Little Colonist’ and from French to ‘Little Settler’.

It was also noted that the letters that then start appearing on the screen spell out ‘neger’ – used as a racial slur in Germany – before merging into the slogan, ‘Der Neue Golf’ (The New Golf).

Following strong criticism of the advert, which was produced by an outside creative agency, VW initially said it was “surprised and shocked” that its Instagram story “could be so misunderstood”, adding that the origin of the people depicted was irrelevant.

But, on May 20, the car manufacturer pulled the advert and apologised in a statement that read: “We fully understand the disgust and anger in response to the video. It is quite clear that this video is wrong and distasteful. We firmly distance ourselves from the video and apologise sincerely.”

The creative agency, Voltage, said it had launched an internal investigation.

Its chief executive, Toby Pschorr, said: “If there is any evidence that an employee or supplier deliberately conceived and planted racist or bigoted messages within our communication, it will lead to an immediate dismissal and legal repercussions.” 

On June 11, VW revealed that it had since decided to take action to “ensure that the production and publication of inappropriate content will be prevented in future”.

Jürgen Stackmann, member of the VW Passenger Cars Board of Management responsible for marketing and after sales, said: “Our controls are clearly insufficient when it comes to ethical judgment. 

“We recognise that we have to question with much greater sensitivity whether content could potentially be discriminatory, offensive, or disturbing for people.

Steps the company is taking include:

  • Improvements in processes by establishing a permanent approval checkpoint at our company and on the agency side. To this end, VW will create a board with diversity experts outside of the creative process, who will review creative content for potentially offensive, discriminatory and otherwise critical elements.
  • Significantly boost training on ethics and culture in VW’s own team and on the agency side.
  • Ensure heterogeneity and greater diversity in its teams.
  • Create a horizontal social media organization for better response and control.

Hiltrud Werner, member of the Volkswagen Group Board of Management responsible for Integrity and Legal Affairs, said: “On behalf of the Board of Management, I want to formally apologise for offending people as a result of a lack of intercultural sensitivity. This was a violation of values for which Volkswagen stands.”

VW said that its own internal investigation led to the conclusion that racist intentions did not play any role in the creation of the advert.” 

But Werner added: “We found a lack of sensitivity and procedural errors. And we are now taking targeted steps in response.”

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