Auto makers Volkswagen scuttled an online ad in May 2020 campaign after social media users detected a prejudiced subtext and outright racist text within the short video.
A tweet by journalist Felix Edeha criticizing the video was highlighted (or “liked”) more than 2,000 times; he noted that the ad shows a white hand moving a Black man around before putting him into a building marked “Petit Colon.” The hand is also seen making the “OK” hand gesture, which has been appropriated by right-wing provocateurs in recent years.
As the BBC reported, the building is an actual cafe located in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is named after Teatro Colón — a theater that is itself named after colonizer Christopher Columbus — and the name translates from French to German as “Little Colonist.”
The ad then shows letters flickering on the screen, but they do so in a pattern where the first few letters, taken together, spell out an anti-Black slur.
“The first letters entered result in the N word,” Edeha wrote. “I could puke.”
In der neuen #VW-Werbung wird rein zufällig ein schwarzer Mann von einer weißen Hand hin und her geschubst und anschließend in ein Haus mit der Überschrift „petit colon“ geschnipst. Die ersten eingegeben Buchstaben ergeben das N-Wort. Ich könnte kotzen. pic.twitter.com/XnqSM41IIQ
— Felix Edeha (@FelixEd93) May 19, 2020
The commercial was also criticized by Bernd Osterloh, chairman of the company’s Works Council, through which Volkswagen employees meet with company management.
“I’m ashamed of this place – and I’m sure I speak on behalf of all the staff,” Osterlogh reportedly posted. “The clip is disgusting.”
While Volkswagen claimed at first that the ad was “misunderstood,” the company’s sales and marketing head Jürgen Stackmann, as well as head of diversity management Elke Heitmüller later posted a statement apologizing for the ad on May 20 2020.
“We apologize in particular to those who feel personally hurt by the racist content because of their own history,” the statement read in part.
The apology also acknowledged the company’s history, saying, “We at Volkswagen are aware of the historical origins and the guilt of our company during the Nazi regime. That is precisely why we resolutely oppose all forms of hatred, slander/propaganda and discrimination.”
Ich entschuldige mich aufrichtig als Einzelperson in meiner Funktion als Vorstandsmitglied bei Volkswagen Sales & Marketing. Hass, Rassismus und Diskriminierung haben bei Volkswagen keinen Platz! Ich werde in diesem Fall persönlich für volle Transparenz und Konsequenzen sorgen! pic.twitter.com/mlAIgrFQWs
— Jürgen Stackmann (@jstackmann) May 20, 2020
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Volkswagen was one of the first companies in Nazi Germany to use Soviet prisoners of war, among others, as forced labor for its production facilities:
The company actively sought out forced labor from the concentration camp system. One VW plant engineer traveled to Auschwitz and selected 300 skilled metalworkers from the massive transports of Hungarian Jews in 1944. In addition, 650 Jewish women were transferred to assemble military munitions. The official relationship between the Nazi concentration camps and Volkswagen was cemented when the Fallersleben facility officially became a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp. Overall, the Volkswagen plant contained four concentration camps and eight forced-labor camps.
Volkswagen is reportedly investigating how the “Petit Colon” ad, which was designed by an outside company, was allowed to be posted.
“Unfortunately, it is very, very difficult for me to imagine that this chain of ‘unfortunate coincidences’ was not noticed by anyone at VW,” Edeha wrote in response.
We also contacted Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, asking if their advertising staff has members on hand to vet ads with racist content. We have yet to hear back.