“Wo gehobelt wird, da fliegen Späne” is an old German proverb that would roughly translate into the English “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”. Granted, coordinating and controlling activities across geographical and cultural distances in multinational companies that have tens or hundreds of thousands of employees globally, is not an easy task. A myriad of tasks has to completed and decisions are to be made every day. However, the blunder that German automotive giant Volkswagen (VW) committed in May 2020, can’t easily be forgotten, and certainly not forgiven. Volkswagen launched a promo video for its new edition of their popular Golf model that – rightfully so – sparked a public outcry over its racist content. Enhanced by fast-paced music and sound effects that resemble a video game, the ad shows an oversized, pale-skinned hand pushing and flicking a black man away from a shiny yellow, new Golf parked on a street. Some viewers have even recognized the hand as signaling a “white power” symbol. A café that is shown in the background is named “Petit Colon”, which could be interpreted as a reference to colonialism. And if things couldn’t be worse, as the words “Der Neue Golf” (“The new Golf”) fly across the screen, the first letters that appear form the word “Neger”, German for “negro”. Founded on orders by Adolf Hitler to build the “people’s car” and having employed forced laborers during the Third Reich, Volkswagen’s epic failure in oversight and sensitivity is particularly cruel and painful. While Volkswagen was quick to admit that the video was racist and insulting, and swiftly removed the video from its official Instagram account, the damage was already done. Twitter had picked it up, and media around the world such as Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, Die Welt, the UK’s Guardian, and the US’s Washington Post – all highly respected media outlets – reported on it. The company’s efforts to portray the racist tones as unintentional, didn’t seem credible to many. The production of a promo video for a multinational company requires significant effort and layers of approval that make it unlikely that this was all just a minor mistake. Particularly in markets that are highly sensitive to racism and inequities, Volkswagen’s brand will have suffered.
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