Volkswagen: Monkey Business And Brand Impact

The scandals in Germany’s battered car industry keep on coming. In this post I examine what Volkswagen were accused of, and the subsequent impact.

In 2015 Volkswagen had to respond to claims it cheated on diesel exhaust emissions. By installing secret software, car engines appeared cleaner in tests than they were on the road. Now Volkswagen is accused of backing a distasteful research project, along with Daimler and BMW. The project required humans breathe in noxious gases. The car makers hoped that the test results would prove that its diesel engines were not as dangerous to health as first assumed. And in another experiment monkeys were sealed into an airtight chamber. Then they were exposed to fumes piped in from a Volkswagen Beetle engine.

In the human study, conducted at Aachen University, 25 people were exposed to just one component of diesel emissions, nitrogen dioxide. This was in lower quantities than found in the exhaust pipe emissions the researchers thought they were testing. The monkeys, tested in an Albuquerque lab in 2014, got off lightly too. The Volkswagen engine control system reduced the fume toxicity they were exposed. The fact that neither humans nor monkeys were harmed doesn’t excuse Volkswagen for carrying out sham research. The sole purpose of which was to make false claims about the virtues of its engines. Plus these are pretty despicable tests. Especially as the terrible image they conjure up invokes memories of atrocities committed by the Nazis.

The predictable response of the car industry has been a combination of shock and indignation. Scapegoat managers have been fired, and urgent inquiries have been announced. And it’s interesting to see how the scandal is playing out in different countries. For example, in Germany, the focus is on animal cruelty. In America, it’s more about corporate behaviour.

You would think consumers would punish dishonest brands, but you’d be wrong. Analysts predicted Volkswagen would go into financial meltdown but instead its global sales have steadily risen. People, it seems, just weren’t that bothered by the malpractice of big businesses. Apparently all a company needs do is make a big show of contrition. As long at it goes on selling things consumers want, it can shrug off any and all impact of unethical behaviour.

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Originally posted 2018-02-18 11:47:42.

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