I love the promise of alternative energy; the idea that we can tap into virtually limitless, clean sources of power to meet all of humanity’s growing needs for lighting, heating, cooling (and powering all of our gadgets!). Wind. Solar. Geothermal. Hydroelectric. They’re all credible, advanced and inspiringly awesome. Like most people, I am concerned about the increasing impacts of climate change, but I also have an enormous faith in humanity’s ingenuity. I believe that we have only just begun to scratch the surface of the renewable resources at our disposal.
While I may be an optimist, I am also a pragmatist. The high cost of much of our cutting-edge technology is falling dramatically, but the truth is that we haven’t yet reached an energy Utopia. We’re not at a point where we can put solar panels on everyone’s roof or a wind farm in everyone’s back yard, let alone develop the kind of mass-production battery technology that will allow us to drive around in affordable electric vehicles (looking at you, Tesla). We still need fossil fuels, including petroleum and diesel, to help power our mobile lifestyles and economies.
So where does that leave us? In transition. Did you ever see those commercials from Volkswagen where two English-speaking guys start a road trip in a diesel Passat? (If you’ve never seen it, here it is on YouTube). They have nothing but a Spanish language CD and a full tank. The Passat’s 43 MPG efficiency and 795-mile range give these guys enough time to become fluent Spanish speakers. While Volkswagen’s vehicles do indeed get great mileage, the accompanying ‘clean diesel’ marketing campaign that touted their remarkable efficiency and green credentials was a huge, nitrogen oxide filled lie.
And that’s a shame. Shame on Volkswagen for doing something on this scale. Shame on the company’s leaders for not admitting the truth earlier. Shame on them for knowingly breaking the law and blatantly endangering people’s health. No internal combustion engine is going to be ‘green’, but this company preyed on the loyalty and naivety of customers by charging them a premium to drink their diesel-flavored Kool-Aid. In the process, they have broken promises and tarnished a stellar reputation for product innovation and quality.
In a recent Wait But Why article by Tim Urban, Elon Musk describes why he refuses to advertise Tesla’s vehicles. Apparently Mr. Musk “sees advertising as manipulative and dishonest.” Unfortunately, I have to say that I agree with his assessment of much of our advertising today. As a consumer, a technology geek and a PR professional, the one thing I’d like us all to take away from the VW fiasco is that marketing campaigns must be grounded in basic truths about whatever they’re trying to promote. As VW now struggles to cope in crisis communications mode, I sincerely hope that other companies learn a good lesson. If they want to build a persona to engage with customers, it has to be accurate and genuine. Honesty is definitely the best policy.