A Stroke of Pure Promotional Genius? Or Maybe Just Good Fun? What is Volkswagen up to?

by Tim Anderson (timothyanderson2005@gmail.com)

Club Volkswagen in Copenhagen...I mean, Club Fox.

An odd series of events took place in Copenhagen over the past three of weeks. Under the name ’Project Fox’ (project-fox.org), the events centred around a series of consecutive club evenings (20 of them!) in Østerbro (‘Club Fox’), an event hall in Christianshavn (‘Studio Fox’), and a Hotel (formerly known as Park Hotel, now ‘Fox Hotel’) in the centre of the city. Ostensibly the project, initiated by Volkswagen, has a commercial backbone, the launch of a new car model, the Volkswagen Fox. In truth, it is not Volkswagen that has fleshed the project into reality, rather a bunch of street artists, event promoters, performers, and a weekly internet newsletter read by those supposedly in the know (that has surely had a significant role in bringing out the crowds (humanmail@humanwebsite.com to get on this list – I highly recommend it if you live in Copenhagen).

With Volkswagen’s involvement all but invisible by the standard of more typical corporate-artistic endeavours, almost shockingly, this one simply doesn’t fit the prototypical vision one associates with promotional arrangements. I'm going to stick to talking about Club Fox, and only mention that 'Hotel Fox' is a rather original project involving about 60 street artists who each redisigned a room the hotel (with basically NO limitations placed upon what they were allowed to do), while Studio Fox has been the sight of a handful of public debates. But Club Fox has perhaps the most interesting.

Club Fox can certainly not be accused of being staged on the cheap. No budget has been spared to achieve a memorable configuration of design, lighting and sound. I couldn’t be bothered to count how many projectors were hanging from the roof - a lot. Volkswagen’s largely ghost presence is one that has evidently included a donation of a significant chunk of change that has made it all possible. This is not the real story. The club nights have not only been top-notch, they have been unique and steadfastly non-commercial, featuring numerous outstanding (very) underground acts from around Europe.

Furthermore, staged everyday throughout the week (not only weekends), they have challenged the Copenhagen clubbing crowd that typically only appears on weekends, to alter their nightlife habits. There basically is no such thing as clubbing in Copenhagen on Monday or Tuesday (some notable activity can be found occasionally on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I will acknowledge). Project Fox, in wholeheartedly ignoring this longstanding convention, has effectively gambled it’s offering will prove more seductive than television or sleep. As a famous Monty-Python line once went, ‘nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition’ – and perhaps in the same vein, nobody expects such routine-defying provocation from a supposedly dull, corporate entity such as Volkswagen. But they have done it, and it has worked. The crowds have turned up most nights, even knowing (though I’m not even sure that many do) that it is all at the behest of Volkswagen! This is no small feat.

Is anybody buying a Volkswagen Fox?

Achieving such an level of authenticity has allowed the project to in effect ‘breath’ and it has taken on a certain life of it’s own as a result (with still a few days left to go before it’s all over). The feeling at the club by now each night is more akin to an ongoing underground music festival, not the promotional production that it nonetheless remains. It is a rare instance where a commercial presence has truly facilitated one hell of a cool party, rather than simply appearing as an incoherent presence stamped onto an event to which it just didn’t belong, or worse still, offering up some big-budget, dead-on-arrival piece of propaganda propped-up lifelessly by a big-name performer or two. This is the typical history of most promotional engagements of this commercial nature.

Now it is not at all obvious why Volkswagen, in initiating such a high profile event, would decide to keep their involvement at such a low profile. Yet something about the whole arrangement suggests that the strategy seems to have worked – at least in my reading of the whole thing. There is simply no other club or festival in Copenhagen that has managed to put together a comparable twenty night program of live performances in recent years – not to mention create a surprisingly funky setting to stage the thing. What is Volkswagen trying to do?

Almost the only hints of their involvement in all of this, or any other company for that matter, is the Volkswagen people carriers sitting outside the club, shuffling the German ‘VIPs’ and local organisers to and from the club each evening, and the shiny red Volkswagen Fox sitting outside the club a few meters from the entrance. In fact, it was only leaving the fourth arrangement at the club that I noticed the car for the first time. Its presence seemed like more the result of a last-second afterthought someone had, remembering it was probably a good idea to actually display the car for which the event was created and named.

Whatever the intentions, in this simple, strategic stoke of low-profile genius, Volkswagen has managed to avoid the inevitable pitfall that virtually every other sponsor of corporate-artistic collaborations has fallen victim to: the inability to refrain from demanding that their logos and attestations trumpeting their involvement get schlepped all over, in every which place imaginable. Crass commercialism ultimately detracts from any purity of artistic vision that such events may have otherwise possessed, which consequently doesn’t leave one feeling much enthusiasm for the event and even less the sponsor. Even on the widely distributed ‘Club Fox VIP’ passes that serve as the public admission tickets to Club Fox, only a single, very subtle mention of Volkswagen as the project ‘initiator’ is made – and not even on the booklet front page! All this has made it work.

It will never be entirely possible to produce a measure of ‘Project Fox’ as a success of failure; this must remain a subjective opinion. One cannot measure any translation into new car sales that may result. However, what can be suggested is that by avoiding almost all conventions of such sponsorship branding-promotional exercises, Volkswagen has perhaps hit upon the elusive magic equation for successful corporate-artistic cooperation. Put your corporate money in, but keep your corporate image out. When companies try to step inside of the artistic arena themselves, propaganda results, something that has always been of questionable artistic merit, meaningfulness and relevance.

Without being beaten over the head with the message from the first step inside (or even earlier), those attending tend to pretty quickly figure out the purposes behind such events, in any case. The less that is said, the more curiosity is aroused – a pretty effective way to get a message heard. When people are assumed to be intelligent, attentive and receptive - and actually treated that way - POOF, suddenly they just might listen!

Still, all of this begs an answer to the question: did Volkswagen get what they wanted to out of all of this, whatever it was? Let me offer an answer of sorts: WHO CARES! It has been fun, and I’m looking forward to attending one or two more nights before it’s all over. I’m sure there will be great debate at Volkswagen regarding the merits of getting involved in such conceptual ideas in the future. Myself, I am the first to admit that the ‘bang for the buck’ from this project besides being impossible to calculate, is highly debatable. In terms fun for those watching the spectacle, it has surely been an unparalleled success.

Okay, not everyone agrees...

A LITTLE NOTE: I have taken some flak from certain corners for not being more critical of Volkswagen for introducing yet another hardly necessary gas-guzzler to their existing line of hardly-necessary gas-guzzlers. My apologies for this. Nonetheless, it must be said that pollution takes many forms, and Volkswagen's Fox launch, in not being another mechanically cranked-out, brain-dead, loud and overhyped affair, at least avoided contributing to a couple froms of it - the visual and aural sorts. If more companies began taking such an approach - more subtle and requiring perhaps requires a little more intellectual engagement on the part of the subject, well, perhaps surprising and unexpected results touching seemingly unrelated areas may begin to follow...in time.

This article was featured in Sew Magazine - thanks to Nick and Roger at SEW.
SEW Magazine, Issue 10.

2 Response to "A Stroke of Pure Promotional Genius? Or Maybe Just Good Fun? What is Volkswagen up to?"

  1. Anonymous says:

    wow, what a cool website!

    Anonymous says:

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