Advertisers: You have lost control of your message. Get over it.

Advertisers: You have lost control of your message. Get over it.

: VW is going berserk over the parody ad that showed a terrorist blowing himself up inside a small but tough sedan. The company is demanding apologies and threatening to sue.

Sorry, guys. That VW has already left the barn.

You are no longer in control of your message, advertisers. You can fight it or you can embrace it.

Learn the lesson from the music industry. They fought. They lost. Big media is trying to learn that lesson now. TV is trying to learn that lesson. Your turn, advertisers.

If you embrace this, I’ll just bet you will find something amazing happen: You will find that your customers are better at marketing your products than you are.

Oh, I know your fear: ‘But what these people say will be off message!’ Well, then, maybe your message is off.

If I were you, VW, I would hold a contest to get people to create the best damned VW commercial anywhere and promise to spend big bucks to air it on, say, the Oscars. You don’t have to pick the terrorist commercial. You’ll be making clear that the thing was not made by you. At the same time, you will learn a lot about new messages that truly resonate and reverberate from your customers — because your customers are creating them. How’s that for market research?

This is the Cluetrain economy, guys: Markets are conversations. Join in the conversation, don’t try to muzzle it.

If you let them… your customers will tell you how to create your products. If you let them… your customers will market them for you. If you let them… your customers will even be your free customer service department if you let them — yielding more happy customers and no complaints about putting people on hold and pissing them off.

Look at how TreoCentral: That’s a guerrilla customer movement of Treo fans helping Treo fans. That is the future.

: More on sell-side advertising and the idea that consumers are your best marketers here. More on exploding TV here.

  • sam bailey

    I seem to remember getting tagged with that ad comparing bush to hitler – I think that ultimately hurt them more than it helped them. I agree that vw looks worse for going after lee and dan (the producers of the spot) than if they had just left it alone but I still believe brands need to be guarded. I think astute marketing involves all sorts of elements and building a community around your product/brand can be an important part of the strategy but this shows it can quickly get out of hand.

  • Tim

    Some of the best ads for Apple’s computers and other devices were not made by Apple. In fact, there are a lot of us who for many years did a better job of marketing their products than they did.

  • Yup, “the customer owns the ad” is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet. Some more thoughts.

  • Mavis Beacon

    Er – not a proper comment but…
    I’ve had a great idea for a human contact ad campaign. I just need a company that’s interested in presenting a fun, off-beat cool image (I’ve been imagining a beverage retailer) who’ll go out on a limb and try an unusual campaign. If anyone knows any company that might be interested, drop me an e-mail.

  • Curt

    Didn’t The National Lampoon once run a parody print ad of a VW beetle floating upside down in a lake, with the tag line, “If Ted Kennedy had driven a Beetle, he’d be president today”?
    Wonder how they reacted to that.

  • Angus Jung
  • daudder

    VW just has to comer out against the ad, but I they benefit from the PR. The ad is funny, in a tasteless and vile manner, but it is both subversive and compelling.
    In the same vein as Mel Brooks and “Springtime for Hitler”, I say bravo.

  • Jeff, I have to disagree with you on this one.
    Yes, it would be a great idea for companies to empower their customers to participate in marketing and advertising, and smart companies will do that, but companies still have a right to control their brand and their image, especially against people who create potentially defamatory/offensive/racist content and then use their trademarks and identifying material.
    One man’s “in bad taste but still pretty funny” is another man’s “shocking, horrifying and offensive.”
    If the graveyard humor of a suicide bomber in a VW doesn’t push your buttons, I doubt I’d have to work too hard to come up with a hypothetical parody that would…
    Okay, got one. Let’s say one of these clever ad parodists decides to recreate the lynching of James Byrd, Jr., in which the victim was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for three miles, as a “guerilla/viral/parody” advertisement for the Ford F-150, complete with Ford logo and current brand/mark advertising slogan (I’m a little queasy as the author of this disgusting hypothetical to note that the current slogan seems to be “Get under the skin of the competition.”)
    Are we still on the Cluetrain? Should Ford just shrug that off?
    I guarantee you that there are plenty of people in the world who find the swarthy suicide bomber “joke” just as offensive as the lynching hypothetical above. How should VW respond to that?
    It seems clear to me that a line has to be drawn somewhere. The question is, where?

  • Shalom Jeff,
    Great point, but we’re turning a very large and very old freighter here with a lot of rusty parts. I think it’s more likely the faster ships will just leave it behind to wander aimlessly.
    And to Angus Jung, yes, the infamous Kennedy/VW ad was in National Lampoon’s Encyclopedia of Humor. (See If Ted Kennedy Had Driven

  • Seppo

    Mr. Jarvis, VW acted correctly, their brand is valuable property and must be protected. They have every right to set limits on off-the-reservation experiments or parodies if these could mislead the public about their brand values.
    That said, they and some other mass marketers have shown creativity in reaching out to their customer base for inspiration. Several auto manufacturers including VW are sharply attuned to online forums as a means of interacting with their most impassioned constituencies.
    But at the end of the day they have an obligation to filter out some of the more problematic creations of their enthusiasts, if the resulting message is jarring, out of synch with company values, or possibly offensive to large swaths of the public.
    Millions of paying customers do not worship at the alter of pushing the boundaries of taste or get enjoy the gratuitous shock factor.

  • Del

    Complaining about this makes VW look like a bunch of stuck-ups. Their reaction to this makes me less likely to buy a VW. On the other hand, thats one of the best car commercials I’ve ever seen. It made me think positively about VW until I read about this reaction. I guess maybe they’re worried about their ‘politically-correct’, especially European customers though.

  • Wasn’t it Jerry Della Femina who offered the copy, “From those wonderful folks who brought you Pearl Harbor,” to a Japanese auto maker? He didn’t get the account but it he used the incident to generate buzz for himself.
    BK-first post to buzzmakina from my Treo 650

  • Glyn

    I do think there is a legitimate question of ownership here. Every firm, and individual, has the right to represent itself and not to be (mis)represented by others. And if I buy a car on the basis of claims made in an advert like this, and it’s wrong – then who do I sue (sorry Jeff, whom do I sue)?

  • It’s Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” writ large, and it’s a good thing.

  • Luciferous

    So VW’s suits want to sue over this? It’s infectiously hilarious! People will chatter “Hey did you see the VW ad?” People will email it to friends with “VW ad” as the subject. Heck, it even mocks murderous fanatics. What’s not to like about free publicity and your name associated with mocking monsters? The suits should be careful. Trying to crush this gag will make them look humorless, PC slaves, or, worse, fans of barbarians.

  • I’d be upset if VW didn’t go ballistic over this. It’s a tasteless ad, and if I thought VW was trying to lay low, not claiming it but hoping to profit from the buzz, then that would be almost as bad as if VW had made the ad in the first place.
    My recollection is that National Lampoon had to make a very abject apology to VW and may have paid some money. Good.

  • Mr. Jarvis, You claim that customers will be better at marketing a firm’s products than the firm itself. In the case of VW–and that is the case we have her– this is simply not true. Arnold does a great job presenting VW here in the US market (“Drivers wanted” harkens back to Bill Bernbach’s “Think Small”).
    The creative team responsible for this stunt, Jeff and Dan, made a sensational spot that’s garnered them a ton of publicity–not great TV advertising for VW.

  • VW is just the latest car company to show up in public whinning about their precious brand.
    For some reason Car companies are absolutely without humor even if you like their cars.
    Put up a fan site, get a letter or a law suit.
    Honda went crazy in 2000
    “On Wednesday, Schreiber found out that American Honda Motor Co., the company’s U.S. arm, is suing him for trademark dilution, infringement, and cyberpiracy. The suit, filed in federal court for the Central District of California, seeks $100,000 in damage payments and a court order forcing Schreiber to transfer and another domain,, to the auto company.”
    “Honda argues in the suit that it has spent hundreds of millions of dollars promoting itself and should have the exclusive right to reap the profits from those efforts. The suit refers to Schreiber and the Web design firm he runs with his brother Tony as “quintessential cyberpirates,” who registered the Honda sites “for the purpose of profiting from the sale of those domain names.”
    Source: Wired News
    Looking at the webyte above, in the list of High Crimes and Misdemeanors, we see Trademark dilution. What trademark dilution? type styles are different, no stolen logos, no large photos of Hondas.
    Infringement? On what ? The fact of life that a car is a mechanical contraption that requires care and feeding to last any length of time?
    Cyberpiracy? see above. Your lawyers must be charging you by the word.
    But then I’m not a lawyer and I see things a little differently.
    Honda’s case is the same tired crap we have seen replayed time and time again. You know, trademark infringment, cyber-piracy, brand dilution, and general whining about: It’s Our product, Our company, and you just buy it, if you want to talk about it you need to talk to us, if you want to fix it you need to come to us and if we won’t or can’t fix it, we want you to buy another, so we can do it to you again!!
    Ford went crazy in 1999,
    “Robert Lane’s website called BlueOvalNews.Com was shut down Temporarily, by the Ford Motor Company through the use of a Temporary Restraining Order. Their contention was, that he had illegally obtained Ford internal documents, and was posting Trade Secrets, Competitive Intelligence,and other High Crimes. I saw a lot of them, and most of them had to do with safety issues, such as the falling down on Job 1, in regards to mis-matching front brakes on Mustangs. Another dealt with the “Advertised” horsepower ratings vs. the Actual Ratings on the Cobra models. These documents strirred up enough crap, that Ford recalled these cars to fix them.”
    Porsche is sending ceast and desist letters in such numbers that mail carriers do not need to go to their health clubs.
    I build websites for wrecking yards and have been dealing with this sort of nonsense since 1999.
    It’s a little hard building a website for a brand without getting one or more of these letters..
    high crimes, piracy, trademark, copyright, infringment, yada, yada,yada

  • Sorry, Jeff. I agree with your sentiment but not in this instance. While some corporations are stupid and hamhanded there really does have to be a limit. Markets may be a conversation, but there’s also a reason why some conversations are subject to libel and slander.
    I think VW has every right to be upset at people who make a commercial implying that the company finds carbombings a hilarious subject for parody. Maybe the next clever guerrilla marketers should draw upon VW’s WWII origins and feature a group of clever SS Officers who use their surprisingly roomy and manueverable Golf to round up a bunch of silly escaping Jews. Subversively edgy comedy gold!

  • Syl

    I agree with BryanC and others. Volkswagen does have the right to defend its image and trademarks.
    What’s with the excitement over Treo and its fans? You act as if this type of thing only happened once blogs came along. The world does not revolve around your use of the internet. Communities on the internet were helping companies sell their products and helping customers long before you arrived.

  • Wyatt

    “If you let them… your customers will tell you how to create your products. If you let them… your customers will market them for you. If you let them… your customers will even be your free customer service department if you let them — yielding more happy customers and no complaints about putting people on hold and pissing them off.”
    Does this strike anyone ELSE as eerily similar to the Open Source phenomenon that’s dragging companies like Microsoft, Oracle, AOL and others, kicking and screaming, into the grassroots, hyper-connected, information-rich, individual-empowered 21st century?

  • Rich

    I don’t think Jeff is commenting on the moral appropriateness of VW protecting their brand, he’s questioning the effectiveness of such a heavy-handed approach in today’s marketplace. There are ways for VW to make it clear that they were not responsible for the ad without initiating litigation, as Jeff suggests in his idea about the ad contest.
    Aggressive stances tend to backfire. What VW needs to do is manage the percieved attack on their brand and somehow turn it around into a positive, jiu-jitsu style.

  • Mavis Beacon

    I personally am uncomfortable with affording companies extra rights. If you can satirize a public official, why not a public company? The issue then becomes whether this “ad” was a satire.

  • Srgtroy

    I complete agree with Mavis. American patriots have died for our freedoms — including freedom of speech. You can say what you want in this country [at least]. This is just saying it visually.
    The idea that VW has the exclusive right to control any message related to them is preposterous and old hat.
    Not being a lawyer, I don’t even understand exactly what ‘law’ this breaks? On what basis can they sue? Just because their logo was used?
    Can someone explain the exact legal issue?

  • Jeff, you are right on. Customers have often been the best marketers of products, and they did it via word of mouth. This has been happening since there were products and customers.
    Now, customers can create media of their own and distribute it to thousands, even millions, via blogs, email, podcasts, etc.
    Smart companies will realize that they should embrace their most evangelistic customers who can and will spread the word via homemade media.

  • Now, customers can create media of their own and distribute it to thousands, even millions, via blogs, email, podcasts, etc.
    That’s not what’s happening here. This is a spec spot, produced to fatten the makers’ reels. It is not a spot being offered up for VW’s use. It is not customers making better advertising and giving it to the client for the everyone’s benefit. It has nothing to do with VW and everything to do with self-promotion for the creative team that produced it, Lee and Dan.

  • As far as the legalities of this, I’m just a novice attorney, but what you need to keep in mind is that we’re not talking about copyright infringement here. At least, not in the way that we think of it in the U.S. – as a civil matter. Volkswagen hasn’t just sued the people who made the fake ad, these two guys are being charged with a CRIME. I have no idea what the penalty is (any German law experts out there?), but still, that’s more severe than in the U.S. Here, this is protected as satire, a parody. At the very worst (if it were not deemed a parody for some reason), you’d have to pay damages in a CIVIL suit. But there is no equivalent crime in this country. That would definitely be an infringement on free expression and free speech as we define it in this country under the First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

  • I’ve done a little more digging around, and the crime these men are being accused of committing is public incitment. The theory would be that this ad might incite someone to commit a car bombing. Under German law, even if the ad does not actually incite someone to commit a car bombing (which seems unlikely), they are still subject to a maximum penalty of five years in prison, simply for producing the fake ad.
    I don’t mean to be a blog whore, but the links to all of this information are on my blog. I’m just too damn lazy to put those links in this comment.

  • Alterman’s response to you is well deserved and I had to record that on my blog today.

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