Volkswagen must be made aware that, of the 400 flood-related deaths in the United States annually, three-quarters are due to people trying to cross flooded roads in their vehicles.
When Jane Yount saw a TV commercial for the new Volkswagen Touareg, she just about fell out of her chair. And it's not because she likes the car.
It's because the ad depicts two young men twice driving through high water – 22 inches of it, to be exact. First they're in a Volkswagen Golf, which gets stuck in a muddy stream. The second time, they're in a 2004 Touareg V-8, Volkswagen's entry into the SUV market.
And they sail through the water with the blithe comment, "Musta rained or something."
A narrator then says: "Why did Car & Driver name it best luxury SUV for 2003? For one, it can drive through 22 inches of water."
Yount, a disaster response coordinator for Church of the Brethren and president of the Maryland's Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, thought the commercial was "reckless."
Hearing protests from Yount and other disaster response leaders, on Friday Volkswagen announced the ad was out of rotation and it wouldn’t run again without a disclaimer.
"Volkswagen must be made aware that, of the 400 flood-related deaths in the United States annually, three-quarters are due to people trying to cross flooded roads in their vehicles," wrote Yount in an e-mail to Volkswagen protesting the content in the ad.
"The ad boasts that the car can drive through 22 inches of water, but tell me, how is one supposed to determine that there is not more than 22 inches of water ahead?" asked Yount.
Leaders from other voluntary disaster response agencies – as well as officials from the National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency – shared Yount's concerns. Many disaster response groups have spent money and time trying to educate the public about the hazards associated with driving through high water.
"I fear that decades of disaster safety education have been jeopardized, thanks to one hair-brained commercial on national television," said Yount. "The cardinal rule of flood safety is, never attempt to drive through a flooded road."
And people who drive SUVs need to be even more careful about driving through high water, Yount added. "Because the laws of physics and hydrology dictate that bigger vehicles with larger tires are more, not less, likely to wash away in a flood due to the buoyancy of the larger tires."
Volkswagen – riding its own wave of positive industry reviews and good initial customer demand for the Touareg – listened to Yount's concerns.
"These concerns certainly brought us a fresh perspective on our own ad," admitted Volkswagen spokesperson Tony Fouladpour. "It was never our intention to have anyone get into a harmful situation."
He said that, when the artists created the ad, they meant to portray a larger-than-life, comic book-style perspective.
But Yount wasn't amused. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness, people are going to see that and think they can drive through deep water, ' " she said.
For now, the Touareg ad is out of rotation, but when it reappears, it will run with a disclaimer, said Fouladpour. "We're still working on it, but here's the tentative wording: 'Professional driver. Do not attempt. Never enter water where there is a current or you do not know the depth.' "
Maybe now disaster responders will start looking at the car instead of only the unfortunate content of the ad, said Fouladpour.
"I mean, it would be a good emergency rescue car," he said. "I've driven it over incredible terrain myself."
Although not currently in television rotation, the ad, entitled “Stream,” can be viewed on the Volkswagen Web site.
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