Volkswagen removes ‘Shoot the Gap’ advert following viewer backlash

With the re-introduction of their “Autobahn for All” marketing campaign for 2010, Volkswagen of America created a TV spot entitled “Shoot the Gap” promoting their recently launched 2011 Jetta. But the campaign has now backfired due to outrage from internet users and safety campaigners alike, leading VW to remove the advert from their YouTube channel last night.

The video, created by VW to promote the new Jetta in the US and Canada, has been widely criticised for encouraging dangerous driving at high speeds. The advert, which features a young couple who are “conservative drivers” on a test drive in the Jetta, spot a gap between two lorries and proceed to “shoot the gap” by accelerating between them in what is widely regarded to be a dangerous manoeuvre by road safety activists.

The advert has been accused of promoting reckless driving - 'shooting the gap' involves driving between two trucks at speed before the distance between them narrows. Did VW really believe this would help sell more cars?

Volkswagen clearly considered the scenario an amusing one but have found themselves wrong-footed by the widespread negative sentiment of those that have viewed the advert.

Much of the discussion has been channelled via Twitter (see adjacent graphic) or on video sharing sites such as YouTube and SkiddPlayer, with social media reaction peaking just before Volkswagen removed the video from YouTube.

Twitter conversations dominated the reaction to VW’s controversial video, once again proving how carefully a brand needs to cultivate its reputation within social media channels. Data provided via:uberVU

On the thetruckersreport.com, a blog and forum for truck drivers and the trucking industry, the advert has clearly struck a nerve:

“Cutting off trucks in this way can lead to death, but VW thinks its a great idea to make it seem ‘cool’. So when you crush that stupid 18 year old in the jetta copying this manoeuvre, thank VW kids.”

Also on a similar website, www.truckdriversnews.com – “As a professional truck driver with many years of driving experience I know this is just a marketing sham; to get people to buy their high powered car. Even though they run the little fine print that says Caution this is a closed course and a professional driver always respect safe driving and the laws; or something to that effect. “Shooting the Gap” as portrayed in this TV ad is a very dangerous ‘stunt’ to do. Cutting off another vehicle in order to drive between two tractor and trailers is plain out stupid. Truck drivers have limited visibility even though they sit up high. Passing a truck on the right-hand-side is a very dangerous move and should not be done – ever.”

There’s even a Facebook page started up by Land Line Magazine, a trade publication for the Owner-Operator Independent Driver Association, called “Shut down the ‘Shoot the Gap’ commercial for VW Jetta LE.”

Quite why Volkswagen felt they should be marketing a mid-size family saloon with few sporting credentials, as a driving tool designed for high speed overtaking manoeuvres is an interesting question. With the car aimed at young couples, and with previous reports on the Jetta emphasising build quality and economy, VW may have missed a trick by not focussing the advert on these qualities plus its value and European prestige over American rivals.

VW are left with a bitter pill to swallow as the time and money invested in developing the Jetta’s brand in America has now been undermined by a simple 30 second advertisement.

They must now address the unrest amongst their detractors, with calls being made for an official apology. VW would also be well advised to go one step further, and welcome interaction with their critics on social networking sites, notably Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, where many of the negative comments were originally posted. This would also give them the opportunity to demonstrate openness and honesty in a public forum, and earn back some of the trust they had previously established within their conservative customer base.

Skiddmark gave Jill Bratina, Volkswagen of America’s Vice President of Corporate Communications the opportunity to respond to the negative criticism on SkiddPlayer, however the response we received was a silent one followed by the TV spot being immediately removed from YouTube.

This action is again, counterproductive to resolving issues between a car maker and its audience in such a situation, since the advert has been seen and downloaded by the public thousands of times, making it impossible for VW to control the viral spread of its ‘Shoot the Gap’ video, nor the inevitable parody take-offs that are sure to follow.

Moreover, whilst we appreciate that releasing an official statement in response to public criticism takes time, you would hope that a company with the reputation of Volkswagen would be quick to put road-safety campaigner minds at rest by announcing their intentions for the TV spot, and reinforcing their corporate stance of safe driving at all times.

  • Honestly, I can't believe that people are wasting their time blowing whistles at car commercials. What's next, eliminating racing events from television because they, too, are dangerous? I could go on.

  • SteveDR

    Hello J, yes I can fully understand that perspective – we live in enough of a 'nanny state' without over-regulating car advertising, but that's not why we wrote this article.

    My first reaction to the ad was how annoying it was when the wife shouted “shoot the gap!, shoot the gap!” and what a lame idea it was for an advert designed to sell cars.

    When I first noted it had been our #1 most-popular video on SkiddPlayer for more than a week, I decided to dig a little deeper and discovered that the outraged responses were genuine. I can understand why truck drivers would be horrified by such a scenario being presented as a 'game' and I can also understand those who would be concerned about young drivers copying such a stunt.

    The real issue, as far as we were concerned, was Volkswagen's inaction – it would have been a very simple matter to have diffused the situation, responded to the initial criticisms and stood their ground over what they clearly regarded as a light-hearted promo piece, but they didn't.

    This lack of response then riled viewers even more, who had previously viewed VW as a responsible, conservative brand and so their silence was read as 'insensitivity'. As we mention in the article, we even approached VW directly, warned them about the potential backlash and proposed a few helpful suggestions based on our own past experience…

    There's nothing wrong with using controversy in a marketing campaign, but if a brand does so then it needs to employ the full repertoire of social monitoring tools and be ready to engage with audiences when necessary.

    Volkswagen are normally pretty good at this stuff, and I've praised them in the past for their social media campaigns, but this time they clearly dropped the ball.

  • petermorris

    The Japanese car ad that shows a car driving off the top of a building whilst being shot at by paint balls also does not set a good example for young drivers.

    Perhaps that should be banned as well?

    Then there is another car ad that shows little cars skidding around and doing quite nifty (I mean dangerous) manoeuvres, etc. Perhaps another ban coming up?

  • SteveDR

    Fully agree with your Peter, these ads should 'not' be banned or villified, but a brand needs to manage its reputation carefully and when there's such a reaction to their ads they need to respond and engage with their audience. Irreverant and irresponsible humour is par for the course – but you've got to 'manage' such a campaign rather than just leave it to fester.

  • Anonymous

    Coming up quickly as one of the new Volkswagen favorites for Boston area VW customers is the Volkswagen Routan, a minivan that’s a perfect choice for families with kids and cargo to haul. The Routan received a 5-star front and side crash test rating, and features lots of storage and cargo capacity, a JoyBox Entertainment system, roof rack, and 12v power outlets. This was nice for mini Trucking Jobs operations. Also fit for family get aways.

  • There has been far far worse commercials!