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Hello Darkness My Old Friend – Volkswagen Overcoming Scandal

While watching the men’s U.S. Golf Open Championship this past weekend my attention was grabbed by the new Volkswagen commercial “Hello Light.” The commercial is easily the best I’ve seen in years! It’s eerie, dark, and set to Simon and Garfunkel’s classic folk rock song, The Sound of Silence. I encourage you to take a moment to watch it because I think you’ll be blown away.

You may recall, four years ago Volkswagen was embroiled in a scandal. The giant car manufacturer falsified emissions results in the lab for its turbo charged diesel engines. It turned out the engines actually emitted 40 times more nitrogen oxide in the real world than in the lab!

Until that point, Volkswagen had a great reputation with the public. They set themselves apart in the automotive industry in the 1960’s with the Volkswagen Beetle and Bus. However, their stock price fell from around $26 a share to about $10 in the wake of the scandal.

Here we are in 2019, and with the emissions scandal mostly behind them you might wonder why they would bring it up in their commercial. Because it will ultimately help them!

In the study of influence there’s a principle of persuasion known as authority. It describes the reality that people are more willing to follow the lead of people or companies that are viewed as authorities. Volkswagen enjoyed that status for many decades but lost the public’s trust in the wake of the scandal. That’s important because in order to leverage authority to move people to action you have to have expertise and trustworthiness.

It might seem counterintuitive to mention the scandal but it can actually help Volkswagen. Studies show, when you mention a weakness or own up to a mistake you’re seen as more trustworthy. By referencing the scandal Volkswagen is owning its mistake rather than hiding from it. In doing so they can regain some trust. They do this brilliantly near the end of the commercial when the following appears on screen; “In the darkness, we found the light.”

But you can’t just admit weakness and leave it there. If that’s all Volkswagen did then people would only talk about the emissions scandal. In order to turn the corner, the next step is to segue into a strength. By doing this people tend to remember the strength, not the weakness or mistake. In the case of Volkswagen, they end the commercial telling viewers they’re now making electric cars. With the move from diesel to electric cars the public doesn’t have to worry about emissions and pollution. No more emission producing cars, no more chance for emissions scandals.

Only time will tell if Volkswagen’s approach works but I’m betting it will. For the most part, people are forgiving with the passage of time when an organization or person apologizes. Enough time has passed since the scandal, the company has owned it, and they’re focusing the public on the fact that they’re moving in a new direction. Kudos to Volkswagen on all fronts.

Conclusion

Learn from Volkswagen and science. If you’ve made a mistake don’t try to cover it up, hope people won’t notice, or pray it will just go away. Own it! Make sure you mention your mistake early then use a transitional word like “but” or “however” to segue into a strength. In doing so you’ll be seen as more trustworthy and people will be far more likely to remember your strengths as opposed to weaknesses or mistakes.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, the most cited living social psychologist on the topic of ethical influence. Brian’s first book – Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical – will be available for pre-sale July 9and goes live on August 20.

His LinkedIn Learning courses Persuasive SellingPersuasive Coaching and Building a Coaching Culture: Improving Performance through Timely Feedback, have been viewed by nearly 70,000 people! Have you watched them yet? Click a course title to see what you’ve been missing.