Viral deconstruction: Volkswagen's Jr. Darth Vader Super Bowl ad

All right, class. First part of the assignment is to watch this Volkswagen ad if you haven’t seen it:

Think I saw four or five people share this on Facebook within 24 hours. I believe the sharers were largely (or maybe even entirely) women, and the accompanying comments were on the order of, “Awww. That’s so cute!”

What’s going on here? Why do people want to share this ad? And while it’s clearly a widely seen and shared spot, is it an effective ad?

This we know: It’s a very well-made, entertaining piece. It’s almost entirely visual, so it’s making good use of its medium. It’s riffing on an extremely well-known and beloved pop culture trope. (I believe it has something to do with those “Star Wars” movies, but don’t quote me on that.) It’s got a cute little boy in it, so it has a lot of appeal to parents, but especially moms, I think. And the product doesn’t appear and isn’t mentioned until almost the very end.

We don’t know what the core creative assignment was for this ad, but here’s what I think it could have been (and I’d love to hear y’all’s take on this): “Communicate that the new Volkswagen Passat, starting at only $20,000, has advanced features like remote start that until recently were found only on more expensive cars.”

So, how did we get to little Darth Vader from that? And does it make sense? Will the way this message is communicated help sell this car?

OK, clearly when you are paying $100,000 a second for ad time and millions in production costs, you are looking for impact that helps justify those costs. As I write this on the morning of the SuperBowl®™, the video has been viewed 12,568,824 times (more or less) before it has even aired. Sure, it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the 100 million+ people who will watch the game, but they will be passive viewers. They may have their heads in the 7-layer dip when the spot airs. The 12 million+ people on YouTube were viewers by choice. So if it did nothing else, the effective creative definitely helped maximize the bang for the buck in terms of exposure.

The Darth Vader part is where it gets interesting for me. We’re clearly meant to empathize with the kid’s desire to wield power in a world where he’s powerless. I think we identify this frustration most with little boys and men in our culture, and I further think we identify mom’s and wives as being the ones who most often play the role of ego cheerleaders for these little boys and men.

I’m NOT saying that little girls and women in our society don’t feel powerless—far from it. But our society was founded in part on the subjugation of women. So, for example, when a career woman feels powerless, the reaction is, “Yeah, isn’t that a shame? But at least it’s gotten better than it was.” When it happens to a man, I think there’s an innate cultural tendency to say, “Awwww, poor guy,” and to feel sorry for the little boy inside the man. Consider this: for all we know, the child actor in the costume is a girl, but we see the character as a little boy. That’s not an accident. 

So the resolution of the spot—pressing the remote starter—is a coded message to men: “Hey, the world may make you feel like a powerless little boy, but for around $20,000, you can get this car and some of the same power that the big boys have.”

I think the main marketing intent of the spot was to promote this car to men of lower middle income. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I think the storyline of the spot was intended to get women to help spread the message, which is ultimately not directed at them.

That’s what I think, anyway. Discuss.