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Super Bowl: VW's Tiny Darth Vader Ad Is Funny, but Won't Sell Cars

Volkswagen (VLKAY.PK) is playing a far-sighted game with its Super Bowl advertising, with ads that put the brand and its newest model, the all-new Volkswagen Passat, on the radar, even if they don't sell a lot of cars right away. That's OK for Super Bowl advertising.

Considering the size and the undifferentiated nature of the audience, the big game is best at building awareness at a high level, as opposed to retail-oriented appeals that say, "Come on down!" VW does plenty of that kind of advertising, too, with ads for its periodic "sign and drive" promotions.

VW has huge sales ambitions for the U.S. market, with a goal of nearly tripling its sales to 1 million by 2018, including the VW brand and its luxury division, Audi. Volkswagen also owns Bentley, Lamborghini and, as of last year, Porsche. Volkswagen is putting its money where its mouth is, building a new factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., that starts building cars later this year.

Super Bowl ads: A drop in the bucket
The company says that including the new plant, it's investing $4 billion in the U.S. market. Considering the stakes, a few million dollars for Super Bowl ads is a drop in the bucket.

The Super Bowl ads are a milestone on the road to a hoped-for jump in retail sales starting next year, the first full year of availability for the U.S.-built Passat. In the meantime, VW is spending a lot of money on Super Bowl ads to remind people it's around, and it's got new cars coming.

VW will have two Super Bowl ads. They're in the VW tradition, employing slightly quirky humor.

Darth Vader Jr.
One shows a little kid (you tend to assume it's a boy, in the spirit of Calvin of "Calvin and Hobbes") dressed as Darth Vader, posturing and gesturing without success to use the Force to move objects, ranging from the family dog to a sandwich. Dad pulls in the driveway. Darth Vader Jr. runs outside and tries to levitate Dad's VW Passat.

From inside the kitchen, Dad startles the kid, who's still out in the driveway, by using the key fob to start the car remotely and flash the lights. The joke is, the kid thinks he (or she) did it, using The Force. Like the Dad in Calvin and Hobbes, VW Passat Dad is pulling the kid's chain.

The second Super Bowl ad is for the VW Beetle, which is getting a redesign. It shows computer-generated bugs scuttling along the forest floor, only to be outperformed by a pin-striped beetle. That is, what's supposed to look like a real beetle wearing pin stripes, which happens to be shaped just like a VW Beetle. As opposed to a car. The ad doesn't show the car (in unmistakable profile) until the very end.

Bugs and the Beetle
The Darth Vader ad is cute; it's memorable. No doubt, some people will remember it's an ad for Volkswagen, and you don't need to capture a big percentage of the Super Bowl audience to capture a lot of people. That's the whole idea.

But few people who aren't already familiar with the VW lineup will realize it's any particular VW model, let alone an all-new one that's designed to knock them flat with amazement. I also doubt they will recall the car's features, except maybe the key fob. That's OK, assuming the Super Bowl ads are just part of a full-court press to drive people to showrooms eventually, which they are.

The VW Beetle ad is OK. Call me old-fashioned, but car ads with no cars are a pet peeve of mine. On the other hand, if any car is distinct enough to pull it off, it's the VW Beetle.


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