It was one of the most-respected brands in Germany – a popular institution with a heritage dating back more than 100 years as one of the leading automobile clubs in Europe.
That was before the wheels came off the ADAC’s shiny image, in a PR disaster that has stretched the goodwill and loyalty of its 18-plus million strong membership base to breakdown point. Media reports in Germany claim that tens of thousands of long-time loyal ADAC club members are now quitting their membership, having realized that the “Yellow Angels” façade is just a long-running PR stunt, the club-like image simply a front for a ruthless money-making machine, with the rotten whiff of “pay-to-play” wafting from the club’s shiny Munich headquarters.
In case you missed it, the ADAC started to misfire when the media began questioning club Managing Director Karl Obermair on rumors that the ADAC had “massaged” its numbers around the number of votes cast for one of its institutional awards – Germany’s most-popular car. Obermair of course scoffed at these rumors – and then made the classic PR mistake of trying to push back a bit too far. This is not a new mistake, Shakespeare defined this with the quote “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”.
More than 400 years later, the ADAC’s Obermair still had to learn the hard way – by over-stepping the line to cast a barb at the media – saying he’d be happy if the papers could even spell the club’s name right.
Talk about showing a red rag to a bull: Obermair may not have realized it, but with that insult, Obermair was urging the press to dig deeper into the claims that the ADAC had over-inflated the total number of votes cast for the 2014 Car of the Year by a factor of 10.
A couple of days later, and Michael Ramstetter, head of communications at ADAC, found himself out of a job: falling on his sword and taking the blame for single-handedly massaging the numbers.
So even in his last act for the club, the disgraced communications chief tried to ensure that the PR crisis did not engulf the ADAC. President Obermair has also been pedaling hard to try and rescue the ADAC’s tarnished image, but it might be too late, and the angels may have fallen.
Car makers like Volkswagen (whose Golf was judged as the “winner” by the ADAC) have rapidly distanced themselves from the tarnished image of the ADAC, in a meltdown described by some of the German media as a “complete write off”. A full and painful account of the situation is in the UK’s Daily Mail.
Across Germany, ADAC members are reported to be quitting the club in droves. The scandal has simply been the tipping point that has made consumers start to question a previously-unquestionable, trustworthy household institution, founded way back in 1903. Members have also realized that their annual membership in a club whose services are based around coming to the aid of a broken-down car at the roadside is becoming anachronistic, as cars become more reliable, and almost every manufacturer bundles several years of breakdown service as part of the deal.
Obermair has yet to resign, and it’s reaching the point where it doesn’t matter anyway: He’s being caricatured and ridiculed in the media – and the ADAC may have suffered an image breakdown that simply can’t be fixed at the roadside.