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Renaming crisis won't save VW

Peter Dahl
Peter Rölle-Dahl
October 28, 2015

Can the power of words save Volkswagen in the face of its biggest ever crisis? The embattled carmaker seemed to think so, when it released its latest quarterly report. But DW's Peter Dahl thinks the strategy won't work.

A worker is polishing a VW diesel car
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gentsch

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible," British author George Orwell wrote in his now-famous essay, "Politics and the English Language" from 1946. "Thus," he pointedly observed, "political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."

Whether the hard-working people in Wolfsburg have ever read Orwell is anyone's guess. But reading Volkswagen's quarterly earnings report released on Wednesday, it's hard not to picture the, admittedly, notoriously cantankerous man cringing in his grave.

Volkswagen's U-turn

Just a few weeks ago, the car group's newly appointed CEO Matthias Müller spoke powerfully of an "emissions scandal," of a "crisis," of "problems." It was a welcome break from his predecessor, Martin Winterkorn, who used words like "irregularities" as he refused to admit any shortcomings.

But when it came time to share the dour news that the carmaker had incurred its first quarterly loss in over 15 years, it was as though the past weeks had never happened. Gone were words like "scandal" and "crisis," replaced instead by "irregularities" and the catch-all phrase "issue" - "diesel issue," to be exact. The latter apparently so popular in Wolfsburg that it appeared 22 times in the 59-page report. It was as if Volkswagen's PR team was trying to pull a Jedi mind trick on would-be critics.

Whereas "crisis" and "problems" signal to the millions of affected people that Volkswagen feels their pain, "issue" is so clinical as to be devoid of any significance or consequence. No wonder, then, Orwell labeled such words "meaningless."

The bigger problem is that it raises the question of whether Volkswagen is now trying to whitewash its wrongdoing. After all, words have meaning - even when they're "meaningless."

Welcome to the club

When it was revealed last month that VW had equipped its diesel vehicles with test cheating software, it didn't take long before the German car giant was bestowed the questionable honor of being inducted into the infamous Gate-club.

Peter Dahl
Peter Dahl is a freelance writer in DW's Business DepartmentImage: Privat

Honorary members include Watergate, Lewinskygate, Nipplegate and, most recently, Deflategate. Now, thanks to zealous VW executives, there is Dieselgate.

To be fair, that Wolfsburg's top brass would be reluctant to embrace a moniker that conjures up images of sex scandals and despotism, while simultaneously trying to calm traumatized customers and shareholders, was to be expected. After all, telling those on the losing end to "turn lemons into lemonade" is a tough sell, especially when billions of euros are on the line.

A spade's a spade

In 2011, US President Barack Obama managed to successfully flip the script on his critics, when he embraced the pejorative phrase "Obamacare." "I have no problem with people saying 'Obama care,'" the president said at the time. "I do care," he fired back at his detractors, defending his controversial health care law, which was threatening to torpedo his presidency. "If the other side wants to be the folks who don't care, that's fine with me." Today, Obamacare has become synonymous with one of the president's crowning achievements.

As for Dieselgate, VW would be well-advised to embrace language that better reflects how consumers feel to show that the company cares. Stuffing their statements with words like "diesel issue" may whitewash the records for future generations, but it won't wash away the sense of deceit many have been left with.

As Orwell would surely agree, let's call a spade a spade.

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