Bad Ads - VW's "The Force"
Learn why the most watched Super Bowl ad of all time likely benefited the agency behind the ad more than Volkswagen.
For anyone new here, I’m the founder of Woo Punch, a brand consultancy rooted in evidence-based brand design. I write about the evidence that debunks brand purpose, differentiation, brand love, loyalty marketing, customer personas, color psychology, mission statements, customer engagement, AdTech, and “hustle culture.”
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THE MYTH OF VW’S “THE FORCE”
Volkswagen's ''The Force'' is the most successful Super Bowl ad of all time. It's entertaining, clever, relevant, cute, you name it!
It checks all the boxes!
Because ''The Force'' entertained and didn't merely sell us a car, customers ''engaged'' with the VW brand.
Let’s examine VW’s “The Force” for effectiveness, not just entertainment value, with my “Good Ad Checklist.” Does it check all the boxes for a great ad? Or does it merely check all the boxes for a prestigious advertising award?
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GOOD AD CHECKLIST
#1 IS “THE FORCE” WELL-BRANDED?
I have personally used VW’s “The Force” as an example of how a legendary, award-winning, memorable advertisement can still fail to be effective at driving business results.
First, I always ask people if they remember the ad. Everyone does. Next, I asked people which brand was being advertised. Everyone gets it wrong. This may be anecdotal, but it drives home an important point. If we don’t know which brand is being advertised, an ad can be perfect in every other way and still fail.
If we love this ad but don’t know who it’s for, we might share it with our friends (which may or may not increase the likelihood we learn which brand is being advertised), talk about it at work the next day (”did you see that Star Wars car ad?”), watch Star Wars again, or even start looking for a new car.
But, none of these things ensures we buy a Volkswagen Passat or any VW.
FAME AND UNIQUENESS
Two things are required for an advertisement to effectively build a brand long-term. Fame and Uniqueness. There are all kinds of empirical studies that back this claim up. I link to a couple below.
Did “The Force” meet these basic requirements?
First, let’s define these two terms since they could easily be misinterpreted.
Fame = how well a brand or ad is remembered (either consciously or subconsciously) among category buyers.
Uniqueness = how well a brand asset (logo, character, jingle, etc.), or a specific ad, is linked to only one brand in memory.
“The Force” has loads of Fame, but it’s almost absent of Uniqueness.
Here’s a great example to illustrate the difference between the two. Take a look at the following brand characters:
If you live in the U.S., you likely recognize all of them.
That’s because these brand characters are famous.
Now, look again. Can you match these brand characters with their brands?
I’m guessing you matched up every character with their respective brands correctly. Likely, you did it within seconds and didn’t even question your answers. That’s because these brand characters are not only famous but also unique to their brands.
Volkswagen and Deutsch LA (the agency behind “The Force”) made a significant tradeoff. They sacrificed Uniqueness for Fame. That’s why most people remember the ad, but not who the ad was for.
You might think by now, “Sometimes you have to make tradeoffs. You can’t always have your cake and eat it too.” But you can...
Having their cake and eating it would require VW to never air “The Force.” As a film lover, I would mourn the loss of this clever short film. But, if I’m VW, I’m ok with never airing it. As an agency client, I would rather my Super Bowl ad achieve its primary objectives. Brand building, sales, survival, growth, etc.
WHY BUDWEISER IS THE KING OF SUPER BOWL ADS
How could VW achieve both Fame and Uniqueness? By taking a cue from Budweiser.
This ad features the same storyline as “The Force.”
A young Clydesdale (young kid) isn’t strong enough (doesn’t have “the force”) to pull the iconic red Budweiser Clydesdale sleigh (move anything with his mind) until suddenly he can. Only the viewer knows how (via remote-start and bigger Clydesdales).
When I’ve asked people if they remember the Clydesdale Super Bowl ad with the young Clydesdale, everyone at least remembers some Clydesdale ad. When I ask who the ad was for, everyone knows it was for Budweiser.
In other words, Budweiser somehow achieved Fame and Uniqueness with its Super Bowl ad in 2006. Budweiser has masterfully been able to pull off Fame and Uniqueness throughout my entire lifetime. Everyone remembers the Budweiser frogs, Clydesdales, and “Whassup” campaigns and hardly anyone mistakes them for Miller Light or Coors ads.
These campaigns have been effective for two primary reasons.
Each of these campaigns (and the characters within them) were consistently beaten over our heads over decades. This built Fame for Budweiser.
The characters within these campaigns weren’t associated with any other memories in our minds (for competing brands or even unrelated memories in most cases). That’s part of why the frogs were so successful. They were random. This built Uniqueness for Budweiser.
What if VW followed Budweiser’s lead, but through their clever idea of a kid dressed up as Darth Vader? What if VW beat us over the heads with their Darth Vader kid for decades, as Budweiser has with their characters?
They would still run into two significant obstacles to Uniqueness.
The Darth Vader kid isn’t versatile enough to reinforce every message VW wants to convey for each ad. Advertising remote-start, automatic doors, and self-driving are about all this character would be helpful for.
Darth Vader isn’t “ownable” by VW. Meaning, that with every Darth Vader VW ad, you risk people still associating Darth Vader with all kinds of other things instead of VW. Other brands (for cars or otherwise) could also use Darth Vader in their ads, which would weaken its effect.
VW could have achieved both Fame and Uniqueness with their Super Bowl ad in 2011, which Budweiser has shown us is possible. But instead, most viewers missed an essential detail while watching the ad…
#2 DOES “THE FORCE” MAKE YOU LOOK UP?
Even if we aren’t in the same room when the ad airs, we recognize the iconic soundtrack from Star Wars. So naturally, this increases our chances of rushing back into the living room to watch the VW ad during a Super Bowl party.
If we are already in the room, we can’t help but notice that an iconic evil space villain is much smaller than usual and not in space.
#3 IS “THE FORCE” FAR-SIGHTED?
This ad was produced to “go viral” and achieve a short-term spike in sales.
VW was probably hoping to achieve long-term brand-building effects to go along with it, but it doesn’t look like that happened. More on that later.
On the other hand, Deutsch LA benefited a lot more from this ad than VW did.
Because short-term sales spikes and YouTube views are easily measured, and clients love to work with award-winning agencies, Deutsch LA could walk away from this ad with “evidence” of massive business success while ignoring evidence to the contrary. So it was undoubtedly far-sighted for Deutsch LA, just not for VW.
#4 IS “THE FORCE” DYNAMIC?
The car’s grill is the only possible proxy for their logo in this ad.
While the 3 small bars of the grill were slightly distinct to Volkswagen at the time, their Passat was hardly as distinctive as the iconic VW Beetle. Whereas DDB’s campaign in the 60s could leverage the Beetle’s shape as a unique brand asset, the Passat didn’t have that luxury.
Let’s contrast “The Force” with a Budweiser Clydesdale ad that ran in the 2013 Super Bowl. Notice the countless brand assets and proxies for the brand in this ad.
The horses themselves
The logo on the farmer’s hat
The signature red wagon
A Budweiser 18-wheeler
A beer bottle while reading the newspaper
Several subtler red items (the barn, rope, driver’s shirt, a sign behind a tree at 55 seconds, red traffic cones, usually orange in the U.S., and even the traffic lights at the end).
#5 IS “THE FORCE” EMOTIONALLY COVERT?
We love “The Force” and are willing to share it with our friends because it influences our emotions without us realizing it. We don’t pay enough cognitive attention to stop ourselves and realize that something is being sold here. So instead, we sit back and enjoy.
We don’t question that remote-start has been around since the 1980s! Cheap-ass Chevy Malibus had remote-start 7 years earlier!
This is the most robust feature of the ad. It influences our potential likability of whichever car brand we believe was being advertised, without us realizing it’s trying to. When viewers watched “The Force,” they felt like they were watching a clever short film instead of an ad. In this case, the ad’s most salient feature was its barrier to Uniqueness. The ad wouldn’t have been as clever or funny if Volkswagen started the ad off showing you the Passat or the VW logo. This ad doesn’t even work if you know what category is being advertised initially.
The entire concept requires the brand and category to be teased out until the end.
#6 IS A BRAND/CATEGORY ENTRY POINT LINK IN “THE FORCE”?
One primary goal of each ad should be to link the brand being advertised with a single Category Entry Point (CEP), or reason to buy from the category, with the ultimate goal of linking several of the most relevant CEPs with their brand over time.1
In other words, advertising should help consumers think of your brand first when thinking of your category, regardless of why they’re buying from the category.
Let’s take fast food as an example. What are some common reasons (CEPs) you might decide to eat fast food?
You are likely looking for something fast, something cheap, a burger, breakfast/lunch/dinner, and/or a quick meal for the kids after a hectic day.
For most people, McDonald’s is likely the first brand thought of in all of these buying situations. This isn’t magic. It required decades of consistent advertising (each ad emphasizing a different CEP as necessary) to build and reinforce those links to the brand.
From “Ronald McDonald” to the “Big Mac” to breakfast, McDonald’s has used these ads to link itself to just about every CEP that exists for most consumers when considering fast food.
What did VW do differently with “The Force?” They advertised a feature. Not a CEP.
We buy cars because our current one broke down, or we got a new job and moved up in status, or we had kids and needed more seating, or we lost our job and moved down in class. We don’t decide to buy a car because we feel we must have remote-start. If that were the case, we would just install remote-start in our current vehicle.
If we’re already in the market for a car, remote-start could be the “cherry on top” that moves us toward one brand/model over another. But this short-sighted VW thinking can only lead to a short-term spike in sales.
Long-term, most consumers won’t remember “The Force” ad years later when they are finally in the market to buy a car. But, there are two other issues with centering your ad around remote-start.
The first issue is that remote start at the time would have been a feature most consumers would have only linked to luxury cars, not Volkswagen, “The People’s Car.”
Sure, remote start in an affordable vehicle might be a great differentiator, but most viewers won’t connect those dots. Instead, they will assume the car being advertised is a luxury brand unless the ad is highly unique to VW (for example, if the ad was highlighting the Beetle).
When the people I ask mistakenly link “The Force” ad to different brands, the most common brands I hear are BMW, Volvo, and Audi. All luxury brands.
The second issue is that remote-start wasn’t a novel feature once most people eventually got around to buying a car.
So what should Volkswagen have done differently?
They could have found a clever way to incorporate a common CEP and then drill that CEP into our heads over time. For example, instead of spending so much of their budget on one Super Bowl Ad (and a max of one CEP possible), VW could have allocated that money toward more ads throughout the year (highlighting several relevant CEPs) instead.
One final note regarding “The Force” and CEPs. Earlier in the article, I used Budweiser as a great example of achieving Fame and Uniqueness in their ads. But there is one glaring thing missing from most Budweiser ads. CEPs.
There are several strategic reasons why Budweiser might not have included strong CEPs in their Super Bowl campaigns. CEPs are very helpful, but on the ladder of what’s most beneficial, Fame and Uniqueness, are at the top when building a brand over time.
Above all else, the #1 goal of advertising should be to remind consumers your brand exists. The biggest motivator of brand choice is familiarity. We typically buy the brands we can think of first.2 Advertising a brand/CEP link widens the possibility of your brand being considered in more buying situations, but without Fame and Uniqueness, CEPs are generally ineffective.
Budweiser may have sacrificed CEPs for Fame and Uniqueness, but this is still a far better tradeoff than the one Volkswagen made with “The Force.”
On the other hand, Budweiser might have snuck a CEP into their campaigns while we weren’t looking. The Budweiser campaigns aired during the Super Bowl, not during the finale of The Bachelor.
When do people decide to buy beer? When hanging out with friends and watching football. By targeting consumers after they just bought from your category, you increase the likelihood of your brand being thought of in those situations.
Unfortunately for Budweiser, the Super Bowl airs at the end of the football season. However, Budweiser’s signature campaigns don’t revolve around football. This gives them the freedom to circulate the same campaigns throughout the year, especially in the summer when beer consumption is highest.
It would be silly to assume that Volkswagen’s “The Force” didn’t drive any business results. It certainly would have convinced some buyers already in the market and led to a short-term spike in sales.
Additionally, an existing VW owner would have been far more likely to correctly link VW with this ad. This would have increased their favorability toward VW and their likelihood of repurchasing the brand.3
However, we’ve known for a long time, thanks to decades of sound empirical research, that brands grow by prioritizing customer acquisition over retention. Therefore, VW has to advertise to non-buyers and light buyers of their brand to grow and maintain market share.4 For that to happen, those buyers must know what brand is being advertised.
Measuring whether or not “The Force” was effective for long-term growth is a challenging task. It’s almost impossible to accurately measure the results of an ad campaign without single-source data (data that tracks individuals who saw the ad over the years and measures their car buying behavior during that time).5 But we might be able to gain some insight by looking at publicly available sales and market share data.
For example, Volkswagen did see a more significant than usual spike in sales from February to March in 2011 (when the Super Bowl ad aired),6 but that spike could have been caused by a million different things. One factor was the fact that all auto brands saw a spike in sales from February to March every year, except for 2012 and 2020.7
Market share data is a better predictor of long-term advertising success than sales, as it accounts for all competitors and how they affect one another. So did Volkswagen steal market share from its competitors after their ad ran?
You can’t just look at monthly market share data for that answer since most ad viewers won’t buy a car for years. So any results you might see from February to March could be residue from a year (or years) earlier.
So, did VW steal market share over the next 1-5 years?
They did steal market share from 2011 - 2012, but then their market share plummeted from 2012 - 2013. It took VW 4 years to get anywhere close to where they were in 2012.6 Again, this could be the result of a million different factors, but it is significant enough to suggest something.
“The Force” could have been the most effective ad of all time, but VW would have had to shoot themselves in just about every direction during the years that followed. This isn’t likely.
I feel my anecdotal evidence of the many people I’ve spoken to misidentifying the advertised brand is enough for me to suggest “The Force” was not nearly as effective as most people think it was.
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 Repetitive Advertising and the Consumer. - Andrew Ehrenberg (1974)