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The (Volkswagen) Empire Strikes Back

Automaker reacts to Greenpeace spoof ad campaign.

VW: The Dark Side from Greenpeace in Nordic on Vimeo.

It might be the biggest controversy involving Star Wars characters since Han shot first. Greenpeace has targeted Volkswagen with a new website and set of spoof ads that send up the automaker’s award-winning, Force-inspired Super Bowl ad, accusing the company of opposing key environmental laws in Europe relating to CO2 emissions.

But when contacted about the campaign yesterday, a Volkswagen spokesperson said the company was “surprised” by the criticisms leveled by Greenpeace. “Talks were held between Volkswagen and Greenpeace about two weeks ago,” said the spokesperson via email. “In an email sent by Greenpeace to the Volkswagen Press Office, Greenpeace made positive comments on Volkswagen’s progress in reducing CO2 emissions. The Volkswagen Group is spearheading technology among the world’s volume carmakers as far as internal combustion engines with downsizing and turbocharged direct injection are concerned. The Volkswagen Group has brought down CO2 emissions of its EU 27 new vehicle fleet from 166 grams (2006) to 144 grams (2010), corresponding to a reduction of more than 13%. We have over 20 models in the Group’s range, which emit less than 100 grams/km CO2.”

Recent data shows that exhaust carbon emissions fell 3.7% in Europe last year, and the European Union has set a target for cutting average emissions in new cars to 130 grams per kilometer by 2015.

Christy Ferguson, climate and energy unit head for Greenpeace Canada, says that VW was targeted because it’s one of the largest European automakers. “They stand out as being particularly bad in terms of lobbying against legislation,” she said. “BMW and Renault, for example, are in similar positions in the market but are actually supporting or at least accepting similar legislation in Europe.”

The Greenpeace spoof is a dead ringer for the original and gets the point across without being too heavy handed. Like, say, chomping down on an Orangutan finger like it was a candy bar.

Speaking of tasty monkey digits, if recent history is any indication, major brands shouldn’t take the NGO’s satirical ad campaigns lightly. The Orangutan snack was a spoof on KitKat for a campaign last year against Nestle and HSBC over the two company’s dealings with Indonesian palm oil producer Sinar Mas, whom Greenpeace accused of illegal deforestation. That effort got more than 1 million views, 200,000 emails sent to Nestle and a flood of negative comments on the company’s Facebook page, ending with both Nestle and HSBC severing ties with Sinar Mas.

So far, the Greenpeace VW Dark Side site has garnered more than 109,000 petition signatures and 38,000 Facebook fans. It’s a tough sell to paint the maker of The Love Bug as a villain. Just this week in Orange County, CA, a 1963 Volkswagen Samba Microbus sold for $217,800 at auction. But Ferguson says it’s not really about making VW look evil.

“The campaign isn’t saying this is a terrible company that we hate,” she said. “It’s really just calling out to the company, saying it has an important role to play in lowering our dependence on oil and appealing to the brand’s fans and consumers to ask them to be the company we want them to be.”