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VW pulls Instagram ads after racism row

Tom Espiner - Business reporter, BBC News

German car giant Volkswagen has withdrawn a series of social media adverts and apologised after a racism row.

A controversial advert showed a dark-skinned man being manoeuvred around by a pair of white women's hands before being flicked away from a yellow VW Golf to a jaunty soundtrack.

Volkswagen apologised, saying the advert was "wrong and distasteful".

VW said it would investigate how the advert had been published.

The advert was one in a series which was supposed to depict a love story between a dark-skinned man and a white woman.

For example, one of the adverts showed the woman placing an envelope on the windscreen of the car to try to fool the man that he had a parking ticket, when in fact it was a letter from her.

Slur

The series, which was set in Buenos Aires, was to promote the VW Golf 8. It was put up on Instagram and Facebook.

The advert which caused the controversy showed the man, dressed in a suit, being manipulated by a very large pair of white hands over a soundtrack of a woman's laughter, upbeat music, and comedic sound effects.

It was supposed to mimic videos put up on social media where one person appears to be controlling another like a puppet.

The man is manoeuvred away from the yellow VW Golf and flicked into a café called "Petit Colon".

The cafe is an actual location in Buenos Aires near the Teatro Colon, a theatre named after Christopher Columbus.

However, the name "Petit Colon" translates both from French to English and from French to German as "Little Settler" or "Little Colonist".

'Surprised and shocked'

Twitter users also pointed out that when the German slogan "Der Neue Golf" (which means "The New Golf") fades in, the letters which fade in first spell out a word in German, "neger", which can be used as the German equivalent of the n-word.

"Neger" can be highly pejorative in German and is used as a racial slur.

Initially VW responded to criticism on Instagram by saying that the origin of the people depicted was not relevant, and that it was "surprised and shocked that our Instagram story could be so misunderstood".

However, it later backtracked, saying in a statement: "We fully understand the disgust and anger in response to the video. It is quite clear that this video is wrong and distasteful. We firmly distance ourselves from the video and apologise sincerely."

It said that given its own history - the firm was set up by the Nazis prior to World War Two - "Volkswagen has positioned itself as a company that does not tolerate any form of racism, xenophobia or discrimination."

Nazis and prams

The firm has a number of internal schemes designed to promote diversity and unprejudiced cooperation, it said, so it is "all the more frustrating that we have made this mistake."

It added that it would "investigate how this could have happened - and draw the necessary consequences", which could include more checks and balances on its marketing.

This is not the first time that Volkswagen has misjudged its messaging.

In 2013 there was controversy in the US after the firm aired a Superbowl advert with the character of a white man from Minnesota, speaking with a Jamaican accent, exhorting colleagues to be more relaxed in their approach to life.

In March 2019 Volkswagen chairman of the board Herbert Diess apologised after evoking a Nazi slogan to describe the importance of boosting the group's profits.

And in August 2019 a VW advert, which showed men being adventurous as a woman sat by a pram, was banned under UK gender stereotyping rules.