Safe Happens. And Apparently, Safe Works

USA Today reports that the new VW Jetta ads depicting car crashes are generating interest at the dealers:

Volkswagen says that since the ads touting Jetta’s crash safety began on April 10, requests for brochures are up 37% at call centers and 56% on the Web compared with the first 15 days of March, and Internet requests for dealer price quotes are up 58%.

Here’s a couple of questions for all you ROI gurus: Was VW advertising the Jetta in March at all? Are they getting an increased response this month because the ads are provocative (and therefore effective,) or simply because they’re advertising heavily?

About Dan Goldgeier

Blogging on AdPulp since 2005, Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. In addition, he is a regular columnist for Dan published the best of his columns in a book entitled View From The Cheap Seats: A Broader Look at Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Global Politics, Office Politics, Sexual Politics, and Getting Drunk During a Job Interview. Look for it on Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


  1. FYI, I snagged and archived one of the VW Jetta “Safe Happens” online ads before they apparently disappeared.
    Here’s the ad —
    Better yet, here’s all my VW online ads —

  2. Carl LaFong says:

    Excellent questions, Danny.
    It’s funny how, when sales are up, agencies are quick to claim credit. But when sales are down, they point fingers at everyone and everything but themselves: “Hey, it’s not our fault. The product is lame, the economy is soft, the weather is lousy.” It brings to mind the old saying “Success has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
    So are the sales figures for the VW Jetta just the usual agency smoke and mirrors, shuck and jive? The anecdotal evidence certainly seems to suggest that the commercials are working. Even if they weren’t translating into increased sales, they are definitely generating a lot of buzz. When was the last time people talked about Volkswagen? While Arnold did some great work for VW in their day and it sucks how they were uncermoniously dumped, their last few campaigns failed to connect with consumers.
    There’s no question that the new commercials are compelling — certainly far more so than the initial pun-laden print ads I criticized earlier this year.
    What is subject to question is whether the commercials are too jarring. While they have resonated with some people, they seem to have repulsed others. (Of course, it’s debatable whether those people would be likely to buy Volkswagens in the first place.)
    Some people feel blindsided by having such a disturbing commercial pop up between the breaks of their favorite programs — much in the way that some moviegoers objected to the trailer for “United 93.”
    Of course, the “Safe” campaign is at odds with the “Fast” campaign. VW’s defense is that they are for two different models. I don’t buy that. VW is trying to have their cake and eat it, too. Such a dichotomy seems inconsistent at best, hypocritical at worst.
    And am I the only one troubled by the “Safe Happens” tagline? It’s a clever play on “S**t happens.” But it seems to suggest that safety just “happens” — that it’s random, unplanned, unexpected, spontaenous. Isn’t that counter to the notion that these cars are precision engineered for maximum safety?
    One last thing. I seem to recall a PSA for seat belt safety some years ago that depicted a similar scenario, with teenagers innocently tooling along until they were hit by a semi clear out of the blue. For some reason, I’m thinking it was from Australia. Does anyone else remember this? Or am I just imagining this?
    Sorry for such a lengthy, incoherent post. Now that Nancy is not around, somebody’s got to take up the slack.

  3. Links Du Jour

    Monopoly evicting Boardwalk, Atlantic City fights back – I can’t see what the big fuss is about: since when could you get out of jail by paying $200? Or erect a hotel for under $1000? In my opinion, changing any name on the Monopoly board is bad busine…

  4. //One last thing. I seem to recall a PSA for seat belt safety some years ago that depicted a similar scenario, with teenagers innocently tooling along until they were hit by a semi clear out of the blue. For some reason, I’m thinking it was from Australia. Does anyone else remember this? Or am I just imagining this?//
    No, you’re not imagining it, Carl. That campaign was in a lot of award books. Or so I’m told by people who read award books.:)

  5. Interesting comment regarding the “Safe Happens” vs. “S**t Happens” slogans. I’ve seen two different versions of the commercial that make this connection even stronger.
    After impact the kids are standing around the car looking dazed and amazed. Right before the shot cuts out you hear a very clear “Holy Sh-” and then they hit you with the marketing message.
    I’d not even seen this parallel the first time through (Holy ____ vs. ____ Happens) but upon further reflection think that it must’ve been intentional.
    The campaign took guts, but I’m still not convinced that all of this shock-advertising will pay off. I’m still of the opinion that Volvo owns the “safety” tag, and anyone else that tries to mess with that will end up worse off.
    Last, as a branding guy I feel that the commercial is somewhat disingenuous. VW can’t say that you’ll survive an accident, so showing it happening is an empty promise. If you can’t deliver on your brand promise then you’ve got a bad brand identity… (Heck, any brand that has to have a disclaimer after their promise is probably on the wrong track.)

  6. Links Du Jour – Gu Ge Brand Name Edition

    Bilingual brands: Google China’s GuGe yarn continues – Chinese bloggers say the new Google brand name is “old fashioned, uncool, and downright boring” and this blogger explains why, presenting alternatives such as “GouGou” (Dog Dog) and “Gu…

  7. the new vw ads find themselves in some very well-traveled conceptual territory.
    there are the ads someone spoke of above and some canadian drunk driving ads which are for all-purposes, the exact same ad.
    i still think that from a consumer standpoint they’re very effective. from a creative standpoint, its been done.

  8. stephen bracco says:

    My 2 cents on the Jetta ads.

  9. bracco says:
  10. did CPB make the “safe” ads?

  11. freddy mendelson says:

    Yeah, I think what makes this campaign work so well isn’t the originality of the idea, but its ability to play with the line between jarring and too jarring.
    My first reaction was total cynicism. Second, “Damn, I should’ve seen that coming.” And third, “Maybe the Jetta really is a safe car.”
    And why is “Safe Happens” confusing? It’s what happens when you’re driving a Jetta in a world where shit inevitably happens. I don’t know, I guess it could be guilty of being too literal, but I think that’s the point.
    For me, the tag, like the spots, hammers a nicely-specific point that most of us didn’t know: the Jetta is one safe car.
    And BTW “fast” and “safe” under the same brand roof is not contradictory. You don’t have go any farther than the racetrack to see the two happily coexisting.

  12. Carl LaFong says:

    I don’t think “Safe Happens” is confusing so much as it is counter-intuitive. It implies that “safe” is something that just, well, happens — that it’s unexpected, unplanned, totally out of the blue. But isn’t the whole point that the Jetta is designed and engineered to leave as little to chance as possible?
    Maybe I’m the one guilty of being too literal here. In any event, the tagline doesn’t dilute the commercials’ effectiveness. The message still comes through loud and clear. It’s just a niggling little inconsistency that most people who are not anal-retentive creatives would never pick up on.
    As to “fast” and “safe” “happily coexisting” on the racetrack, tell that to the family and fans of Dale Earnhardt. And anyway, how many VWs do you see on racetracks? Try driving on, say, I-95 and tell me how well “fast” and “safe” go together.

  13. I hate Volkswagen and there commercial sucks

  14. Brian, you may want to explain yourself further before making such a bold comment. Is there any reason why you would hate this commercial? Do you have a grudge? I completely disagree with your comment. I believe this commercial is one of the best I have ever seen because it is so jarring. It forces you notice the product. Also, it might be helpful in future to learn the difference between there, their and they’re. I’m fourteen and I know that much.

  15. >>Of course, the “Safe” campaign is at odds with the “Fast” campaign.
    How is this even remotely contradictory? Can you not travel fast safely? I must agree with the earlier post that you need look no further than the local racetrack to see “fast” and “safe” coexist. Nothing can make you “safe” from everything that could possibly happen to you, but that’s not the standard to which we judge safety in this country. By the standards that we do use, the VW fares quite well against it’s competition.
    >>But it seems to suggest that safety just “happens” — that it’s random, unplanned, unexpected, spontaenous.
    Safe “happens” because it’s engineered. I don’t agree with your interpretation of the tagline, and I don’t believe that most other people will interpret it as “unexpected” or “spontaneous.”
    I like the “Safe” and the “Fast” ads, they get your attention and you remember the product that they are marketing for. We all know that we’re talking about VW here (compare to the Mountain Dew MDX “All Night Long” ad; I can never remember the product that commercial is selling).
    The campaign that irks me is the “Ego Free Emissions” series. What is the deal with this? Isn’t it egotistical to behold the higher-than-thou attitude because you don’t have an ego? (that’s contradictory) Or is that the joke and I’m just missing it? And what’s with the girl just tossing the megaphone out the window, as if it’s okay to litter just because you don’t want something that’s in your car?
    The other campaign not yet mentioned is the “Stereotype” series, and that is just funny. They have managed to do well with this series so far, and I’m interested to see where they take it next.
    Lastly, way to elaborate and make a solid case for yourself, Brian. You must have put an incredible amount of thought into your argument and I feel enlightened to have been rewarded with your obviously educated opinion.
    Where do these people come from?

  16. Carl LaFong says:

    While I hear what you’re saying, Joe, I still don’t buy the racetrack analogy. As I pointed out earlier, Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death is proof that fast and safe don’t always mix. Racing is an incredibly dangerous sport — even more so than football, basketball or lawn tennis. And that’s under carefully controlled conditions driving specially engineered cars.
    If you want to see how well “fast” and “safe” coexist in the real world, I can recommend any number of streets and highways — such as certain stretches of I-95 — that will disprove your theory. After all, if driving fast wasn’t a safety issue, we wouldn’t need speed limits.
    Fast and safe may not be mutually exclusive concepts, but they are, to a certain degree, at odds with one another. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. I’ve seen several reviews of the VW “Fast” campaign that have raised this very same concern.
    Does that necessarily mean that I am right? No. But it does show that there’s more than one person out there who sees a discrepancy between the two campaigns.
    As for “Safe Happens,” it’s clearly a play on “sh*t happens.” But sh*t happens without rhyme or reason — it just happens. To me, that is 180 degrees from “Safe ‘happens’ because it’s engineered.”
    But, as I pointed out in my previous post, that’s a minor detail that does not detract from the overall effectiveness of the spots themselves. And that, I think, is one thing we can both agree on.

  17. powrbook says:

    Carl, there is nothing strange or contradictory about the “fast” and “safe” executions within the VW campaign. In fact, it has everything to do with specifically targeting your message to the people you want to reach. That’s it, plain and simple. Whereas the “fast” campaign targets 18-35 males, the “safe” campaign is aimed at an older demo.

  18. Carl LaFong says:

    I appreciate that “Fast” and “Safe” are selling two different models to two different audiences, powrbook. But it’s still the same brand. It seems incongruous — if not inconsistent — for a company to be espousing two seemingly different messages.

  19. freddy mendelson says:

    Maybe the days are over when a brand stands for just one thing.
    That seems to be CPB’s MO, a sort of shock and awe approach to strategy. And I don’t mean that literally. Both the BK and VW brands seem to be moving targets when you try to pin down what they’re about.
    Then again, maybe that’s just how it goes with bigger, complex brands. Like, what’s the Coke Side of Life? Loosest strategy ever.

  20. Well, “Safe Happens” and “Sh*t Happens” actually sorta support eachother. Safe Happens because it is engineered, this is because Sh*t Happens unexpectedly, hence the need to engineer for it and why it’s a good idea to buy the car designed to make Safe Happen.

  21. The Jetta looks terrible after the accident in the commercial, but the other vehicle(s) look better.

  22. I happen to know for a fact that safe really happens, this VW saved my life

    I walked away completely unharmed…

  23. I stumbled upon this forum researching the “Safe Happens” campaign for a class. Something really struck me as I read what Carl said in his first comment:
    “What is subject to question is whether the commercials are too jarring. While they have resonated with some people, they seem to have repulsed others. (Of course, it’s debatable whether those people would be likely to buy Volkswagens in the first place.)”
    It would probably make sense that the people most concerned with safety are those who have already been in an accident. However, the negative feedback I have received about this campaign mostly comes from people who have been in a bad accident; they cannot handle reliving that experience. It seems as though VW is scaring away the very people they are targeting. Think of all of the bad feelings so many people associate with the VW brand because of these commercials.
    On the other hand, maybe Volkswagen isn’t looking for the people who are SO concerned with safety, (Volvo’s got those kind wrapped around their finger anyway, right?) but only moderately concerned with safety–the kind of people who needed to be scared into being concerned about safety? I guess Carl’s right–it is debatable.

  24. jack3_vk says: