Taking the High Road

Old Wives' Tales ad image   BMW ad image   BMW ad image

November 8, 2015 | In the weeks leading up to news of Volkswagen's emissions test cheating, I'd already been wondering on a regular basis how it came to pass that so many of Volkswagen's decision makers seemed to lack basic human decency - and basic common sense - and not just with their choice to create noise pollution with remote locking and infotainment technology. At the time, it was impossible to turn on a television without catching at least one of VW's Old Wives' Tales ads. Little did I imagine that something other than concern about the ads' ageist messages would result in their being retired.

By that time, I already had a sense that VW did not hold the North American market in high regard. The easy decision to adopt noise polluting features, and to play up the choice in ads, sent a clear message. The decision to uphold noise regulations throughout Europe and disregard them here sent a message. Using ads that featured the technology - in one, waking someone up - underscored a sense of ignorance and indifference.

The Old Wives' Tales ads were a new low in that they played on multiple stereotypes, apparently unaware that stereotypes are a social problem that cause and perpetuate harm. The ads variously mocked women, mocked older women, mocked ethnic women, mocked Italian-American women, and somehow even managed to mock New Yorkers. Maybe Volkswagen's decision makers who helped conceive the ads, and those who approved the ads, and those who decided to run the ads aggressively were unaware that the ads' offensiveness is so much more than a bunch of uptight politically correct finger waggers. There is an established scientific discipline at the crossroads of public health, geriatric medicine, ageing stereotypes research, and a well regarded and highly respected movement of anti-ageism activists. Stereoptyped messages like the ones that the Old Wives' Tales ads send actually have a profound effect on elders, not only in terms of how they feel, but in terms of their physical health, cardiovascular health, memory function, hearing function, and other variables, many of which also translate into higher healthcare costs. 1 2 3 4 5 6

Volkswagen wasn't the only carmaker airing ads that used insulting stereotypes. BMW's Back Seat Driver ad features a buffoonish older women almost indistinguishable from the VW ads' passengers.

But apparently not even being publicly criticized by the National Council for Behavioral Health about its Cute Cottage ad, which used a stereotyped depiction of a mentally ill woman, had a lasting effect on BMW's ability to discern material that is stereotyped and inappropriate. While apologizing for its insensitivity regarding the Cute Cottage ad, BMW has nevertheless continued to air its age stereotyped Back Seat Driver ad. As with the Old Wives' Tales ads, the Back Seat Driver ad mocks older women and ethnic women, and throws in class stereotype ("You're from Queens") at the end.

I don't think it is enough to just fire those responsible for emissions cheating and order VW to pay a fine. It is necessary to take a long, hard look at the culture that facilitated that deception, in particular the Volkswagen culture that seems contemptuous of Americans and our culture as they imagine it to be. If decision makers who enabled cars to honk with locking and now half a dozen other horn honking scenarios remain, there will be no real change. If decision makers who conceived of or approved of the Old Wives' Tales ads remain, there will be no real change. Those who mock us and misunderstand our culture and patronize us with noise polluting technology are incapable of changing. They will never see us as anything but caricatures.

I was not greatly surprised that a misguided group of Volkswagen decision makers would cheat on emissions tests so long as the actors being duped were US regulators, and the main victims were US car owners. At the same time, I'm not gloating or happy about it, and I want Volkswagen USA to recover. I especially want to see the frontline employees, sales and customer service agents, who are probably in the most difficult position imagineable, recover what was taken from them.

When I was researching a paper on the topic of horn use with remote locking, I was forced to fact check a lot of material by visiting dealerships, interrupting sales people who had work to do, and either interview them, walk around figuring out which models were honking and which were transitioned to the electronic tone, or a combination of both. Around 95% of the people who assisted me were super nice and bent over backwards to get the answers I needed. Still, I was even more amazed to walk into Open Road Volkswagen in Manhattan, to be asked if I needed assistance, ask an obscure question about Audi's acoustic alert, and receive (what I knew to be) the obscure, and correct, answer without hesitation or needing to clarify anything. Every interaction I had with Volkswagen or Audi sales or customer service agents was the same - good information, transparency, no judgement, no forcing me to prove that I had a right to be asking such questions. They were friendly and helpful even though I wasn't shopping for a car, understood what I was doing, knew that I was only asking for public information, and knew their products backwards and forwards, history included.

Bad decisions aren't made in a vacuum and don't happen all of a sudden. There are numerous bad decisions, related and unrelated, being made along the way, and in this case, the common thread was that those who would suffer from the decisions belonged to a market that was regarded with a measure of contempt. If every bad actor were out of the picture and those who remained had the knowledge and skills and clear respect and positive regard for their American market as I observed while briefly working with dealership and call center customer service staff, all that would remain to do would be to take the high road with every new decision.

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