How VW’s New Ad Changes the Rules Simply by Not Idealizing the World

Our Q&A with director Sune Svanborg Sørensen

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You may have already seen the impressive new long-form ad “Generations” from Volkswagen Denmark, in which an aging father and his grown son take a road trip together in an attempt to connect after a lifetime of misunderstanding.

It’s a notable film for its exploration of difficult family problems, something so few advertisers feel comfortable doing that you can easily point out the examples (Ikea’s “Where Life Happens” and Ford’s “The Family” among them).

Lots of brands have celebrated “real families” in recent years, most notably Honey Maid and also dozens of others. But that’s a different dynamic. Honey Maid’s diverse families may be underrepresented in advertising, but they’re still idealized in the context of the spots, which literally come out and call each of them “wholesome.”

The family in VW’s ad wouldn’t be described as wholesome. There’s a strong undercurrent of love, but it’s still a family with major issues, plain and simple.

And so, the question for VW (or any marketer treading this territory) becomes: Does exploring a family’s problems make an ad relatable and forge thus a stronger connection with the viewer? Or is it, even if it’s well made, just depressing and a turn-off?

We spoke to Sune Svanborg Sørensen, the director of “Generations,” a little bit about this question. (Sørensen came up with the idea, wrote the script and directed the film—in collaboration with Very Agency, creative director Thomas Pries and production company Shoot Happens.)

AdFreak: Why do you think marketers shy away from difficult topics like family problems?
Sune Svanborg Sørensen: Traditional advertising tends to consider the purpose of marketing as an idealization of reality rather than a reflection. Generally we see more “perfect families” than “real families,” those with issues, conflicts, divorces or larger concerns such as illnesses or deaths. I presume it stems from an early misconception that we need people to aspire to extraordinary lives with materialist goals—a new car, a nice watch—rather than to experience a genuine and authentic identification with us. But I truly believe that anyone who identifies with something real and feels emotionally connected to a story, will develop an almost equally strong bond to the sender of the message—as long as it is closely related and purposeful. And this only happens when we stop idealizing the world and start being real. The story is personal and that’s what makes it real, like any good movie.

Can you tell us about the scriptwriting? I’m curious how you approached the issue of integrating the brand into the story.
The key to this type of scriptwriting is, first and foremost, trust. It begins long before the script itself. Trust from the client and from the agency. To work with a director from the early stages of the project, before any ideas are set in stone or even finalized. That is the only real way to avoid making stories that feel “forced” or feel like a compromise. My idea was derived from a genuine place of storytelling, not from a prescribed brief with a board or a fixed notion.

I wanted to make a real human story about real people with real, unresolved issues that we can relate to within a credible and functional setting—from a storytelling perspective. The car and Volkswagen as a brand was perfect for that—to become a third character and work as a symbol for the conflict between the characters, but at the same time a motivated space for resolution. Putting the story before the brand is key. Because it makes any integration of the brand motivated by the story itself. I want to stress this point. I was the one who insisted to use Volkswagen memorabilia for the film, because it was more credible that Alex’s father would have that. I think it might be a first that the director is the one who insists on branded content. But it speaks volumes of the level of trust and freedom we have had in this close collaboration.

"The story is personal and that's what makes it real, like any good movie."
Sune Svanborg Sørensen

At the end of the day, the story was king throughout this whole process, and the starting point was always directly linked to this notion. He throws the cup, the chess board and the tapes away because they remind him of everything he doesn’t understand and resents about his father in that moment. And he brings them back as a symbol of acceptance. The fact that the cup has a VW logo is directly linked to the characters, not the client’s wishes—albeit a fortunate case of common interests.

In fact, we are releasing an extended version of the film as well (a 10-minute edition), which is made primarily for festivals and long-format distribution, in which the Volkswagen memorabilia, including the coffee mug, actually gets an even clearer role in the story. Again, it’s something that speaks volumes of the relevance of the brand in this story and of its emotional connection to the audience.

Are brands in general becoming more open to addressing hard topics?
Yes, but we are not there yet, so to speak. Communicating “hard topics” as part of a brand strategy or platform still seems to be more of an outside-in than inside-out process. It is rarely the brief, and more often a result of the director’s or creative’s efforts to achieve substance. But we are also seeing similar developments with the recipients of the messages, who tend to respond positively toward a higher level of authenticity in the stories they see. And as with anything else on the market, the marketers will always respond to customer demands. Which is very positive.

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@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.