The (white) people's car: VW's 'racist' campaign typifies white privilege in marcomms

My father-in-law was raised in 1950s Kenya. He was taught from an early age to respect different cultures and always be mindful not to ‘tread on people’s sensitivities,’ as he puts it.

It’s a lovely turn of phrase and one that has significant meaning in the context of the here and now.

This week, the news has been dominated by the widespread protests in cities across the US following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Alongside the public, brands such as Disney, Ben & Jerry’s, Nike and Adidas have come together to show universal support for the rights of black people and in condemnation for the brutality they face.

But will beating the drum create greater awareness and sensitivity within the brands themselves? Let’s take the latest offence from by one of the biggest brands there is: Volkswagen.

In May, VW created a social advertising campaign to support the launch of ‘The New Golf’. A 10-second video was posted across Instagram and Twitter. It depicted a black man being flicked away from the product by a large white finger against the background of a café, Petit Colon.

Translated, Petit Colon means ‘little settler/colonist’, which of course has racist undertones. I'm not sure how this was overlooked by the creative teams that worked on the campaign, the marketing team at VW and the social media platform owners that sanctioned the running of the ad in the first place – so much for the promised ethical standards being upheld.

Then there is the issue of the concept itself: the storyboard. Out of all the possible scenarios, ideas and choices, this was one chosen as the gem of an idea. What the f**k?

Ethnic minorities constitute less than 14 per cent of the advertising industry and this campaign is just another example of why representation is incredibly important, not just in advertising but in any profession. White privilege is, and has proven to be by adverts such as this, a complete abhorrent blinker to the real-world and what is acceptable and what is not.

It’s not the first advert to screw up, and sadly it won’t be the last.

Many have come before it: Heineken, Prada, Dove - and these mistakes haven’t been learned from, so I can only assume more are to come. It’s 2020, we’re a world that thrives on diversity and so why are we still fighting against black oppression?

It’s because of the small percentage of influential brands, like VW, which do very little to help the cause – in fact, they are part of the problem. And until we're calling them out left, right and centre, nothing will change.

VW has had years of reputational damage. This latest debacle won’t have helped matters and in the light of recent events, I can’t see them scraping themselves off the floor with ease.

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins is MD of Clearly PR

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