Volkswagen up! advert using Stephen Hawking’s voice

Update: Today I received the following correspondance from the ASA

Thank you for contacting us about a radio ad from Volkswagen, we received a number of complaints about the ad. Some objected that the ad was produced without the consent of Stephen Hawking, Emeritus Lucasian Professor, while others objected it was offensive to people with disabilities and Professor Hawking in particular.

Having looked into the matter further, we are satisfied that the broadcaster has complied with the requirements of the BCAP Code and as a result we will not be pursuing the matter further. In particular, we have received confirmation that Professor Hawking gave his consent to appear in the ad.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

On the radio today an advert came on that caught my attention.

It was Stephen Hawking talking about the Higgs boson and typical intellectual stuff.

This went on for about 20 seconds.

Then the language soon changed to be very chatty, almost slang-like.

This didn’t feel like Professor Hawking talking.

All of a sudden he was talking about the new Volkswagen Up.

This wasn’t Stephen Hawking at all, just an ad peddling another car using his voice effect.

It was clever (for a second) but then felt wrong.

This didn’t have a clever twist, like the More Than Morgan Freeman advert.

Just fooling you into listening for a while.


(Update – here is a Youtube clip of the ad)

60 thoughts on “Volkswagen up! advert using Stephen Hawking’s voice

  1. Steve Smith

    I think this is unreal. Even if Prof Hawkins gave permission. It is below the belt and VW should be ashamed. What about other sufferers of MND. Advertising at any cost.

  2. Drew

    I was wondering whether anyone was discussing this already and am intrigued to see what people are making of the ad. There are some interested comments here which I would like to pick up on.

    As I understand it, the “WORDS plus” synthesizer voice was never an exclusive voice. Also, it could surely not be claimed to be “Stephen’s voice”, but rather than voice we associate with him.. and he chose to use.

    Another consideration is that if the voice does not identify itself as him, then even though it discusses a scientific topic is it really doing anything to mislead us?

    Finally, is there any proof that he wasn’t contacted regarding the ad by VW? Having appeared in an episode of a sit-com in which a character does an impression of the voice, he clearly has a sense of humour.

    So I’m curious, what exactly was the nature of the complaint?

  3. Paul Post author

    I agree that the ‘voice’ is an interesting point but I think you can agree that the synthesizer voice, plus the topics that were being discussed (Higgs boson, etc) would lead a listener to believe that it was Prof. Hawking.

    Whether a technicality or not, give this audio to 100 people and I expect the vast majority would identify it as Stephen.

    If this were authorised, I have no problem with it, but I imagine that it wasn’t. Hence the issue I have with the radio ad.

  4. Steve Smith

    I understand you’re rational, however, what the issue is with me are the words used. It is clearly intended to make you believe that the synthesised voice is that of Prof Hawkins according to the topic used. The comment that Paul raises is poignant, Give this to 100 users and ask them who they think it is. They’re ad’s in the past have been quite intelligent, but not this one. I think they have missed to point of the ad. I genuinely can’t say I know what product VW were selling. Clearly the talking point here, is certainly not the product, but how it’s being sold.

  5. Drew

    Good points, and it will be very interesting to see where the complaints lead.

    Maybe soon we will discover whether Mr Hawking was consulted – and we will learn whether the ASA feel it was unfair to either the listeners, or to sufferers of MND. Whether it was unfair to Mr Hawking is presumably not a reason to uphold a complaint by third parties – especially if the subject’s own views are not known

  6. Paul Post author

    Surprised that this actually was Prof. Stephen Hawking – I thought they used this without his consent.

    Knowing he consented changes my issues with it, but it still felt odd when I first heard it.

  7. Richard

    I think this advert is sick and VW should be taken to task for it, as a person who has had a parent lost to MND it shocks me to the core to think that this would be amusing….

  8. Pingback: Professor Stephen Hawkin…or not; good copywriting…or not? | Copywriters Gloucestershire: Writing Now

  9. Keith

    I’m happier knowing that he consented. I do wonder if it was before or after they made the ad. I also hope that he received some remuneration for his endorsement.

    If he was fully informed and agreed up front then it shows that he’s got a good sense of humour.

  10. Dr Damian Mc

    As a Particle physicist I thought this was hilarious, so for you that would complain, please do, are you sitting in a wheelcahir with a crippling complaint? You can express your opinion’s and no doubt will at any given opportunity, do you understand the effort it is for Hawking to even form one sentence or to actually get from the start of the day to the finish. Truly take a long deep look inside and reflect on your plebian opinions.

  11. J R Hartley

    I may be being naive and I don’t possess the incredible problem solving ability of Stephen Hawking so please could somebody explain where the offensiveness of this advert can be found? As I understand it, Prof Hawking (or a very good imitation) is explaining how his genius mind cannot comprehend that a VW can be so cheap. Funny in my book any day of the week… No???

    It seems that the offense may be committed by allowing somebody with MND to advertise a car brand. If this is the case then I am truly disgusted with those attitudes that feel it is unacceptable to allow a MND sufferer to be heard on the radio… Shame on you!

  12. katy vegas

    This ad has nothing to do with humour. Whoever conceived this is a moron. It is obvious that the “voice”over purports to be someone with MND or similar – making fun of disabilities?? How do peope with MND feel about this? Peter Kay ads – funny. T Mobile ads – clever. Volkswagen should be ashamed of themselves.

  13. J R Hartley

    I find it terrible that you think people are mocking somebody with MND. Even the “morons” could establish that this is supposed to be Stephen Hawking, surely you understand that much.

    Maybe, it is because Stephen Hawking is considered one of the most intelligent people of the last 100 years that they have chosen him to ‘not understand’ how VW can sell a car at such a low price, rather than as you see it, a random person with MND. The humour can be found in the fact that somebody who is acknowledged a genius cannot comprehend the low price of a VW.

    Perhaps they are not aiming this at your level.

  14. TelThePensioner

    I think the advert is both clever and funny. The fact that Professor Hawking agreed to or with it shows me that he has a beautiful sense of humour. Not everyone has the ability to (gently) laugh at their own difficulties. The ad is still being aired on Classic FM. GOOD ON YOU, Stephen Hawking. You’ve gone up even further in my estimation x

  15. Kerry

    Would like to know why some people are so offended? This advert in no way makes fun of Prof Hawking for having MND. If anything, you should be ashamed of yourselves for pigeon holing the genius as only an MND sufferer and nothing else. Volkswagen’s ad campaign has for some time now, been based on how unbelievably cheap there cars are. Volkswagen have got the most intelligent person they could think of to reinforce this. If you have been offended by this ad it is only because of your own small mind. I found the ad very funny which I’m sure was the intention. Good for you Hawking!

  16. Paul Post author

    My only reason for the complaint, as I mentioned to the ASA was the fact that in the advert it did not mention Prof. Hawking, leading me to believe he had not given his consent to the ad.

    The fact he recorded it I think was great! It just could have simply stated his name in the copywriting to make it clear given it was a radio advert.

  17. Aisha

    I think the advert is great. It shows that Steven Hawkins has a sense of humor and I laugh and enjoy it everytime it comes on the radio. My husband is big fan of Steven Hawkins and he liked it too. In my opinion there is nothing offensive it’s just witty.

  18. Tom

    Everyone who has made a complaint or drawn attention to this add for being ‘negative’ should stop and think…if any other celebrity had voiced an advert it’d be fine but just because he is disabled he is not allowed to? The advert is simply a pun on his lifes work being to fully understand the universe yet not being able to understand how they can sell the car for the price! Its a clever bit of advertising and the only ‘negative’ to sufferers of MND is small minded people worrying about the damage of letting people live their lives in a normal fashion. Its his voice, get over it!
    This is all without mentioning the attention it will draw to his lives work which is his legacy, he has one of the greatest minds this world has ever seen and is doing things no-one has ever done before I say the more people who know who he is and take an interest in his work the better. Ignorance may be bliss but how can we hope to progress if that is all we ever see, the only way is essex, geordie shores, x factor, jeremy kyle, holyoaks…..tell you what stick the kardasians in every commercial and tv show and see what future generations turn out like see how offensive you find that. Now please if you don’t have the capacity to think logically don’t blow things out of propotion, you are the ones guilty of the discrimination you are accusing others of and its only by treating each others as EQUALS that discrimination will truly disapear.

  19. Punkbird

    How patronising is it for all these ‘able-bodied’ people to be so put out on a ‘disabled’ persons behalf…especially when that person has consented to the ad! I take it none of you watch or approve of I AM SPAZTICUS either…

  20. Neil

    If Stephen Hawkins gave his consent great. If he got paid for it as well then great. Of course everyone knows what the joke is. The fact that its so obvious is what makes this advert rubbish. Maybe he’s spent spent too much time thinking about the universe than realising that Volkswagens are over priced to start with! Its a cheap advert with a cheap joke. Also, for those who initially said why should it necessarily be Stephen Hawkins talking as the voice is a standard voice for those not able to speak, what planet are they living on? How many other famous people have you heard using that voice on TV or radio? How stupid can you get?

  21. Boson

    This advert belittles Prof Hawkings life’s work. To associate the great advances in science with the mere advertising of a car detracts from the credibility of both the man and his achievements. To claim that he has a sense of humour does not justify it nor does any reference to MND.
    No-one whoever they are whose work is of such quality should have it used in such a demeaning way; the value to human knowledge is ongoing, the car being advertised will be soon forgotten.
    Also” It blows my mind” does not sound like the exclamation of a Professor of Physics over a trivial car advert! Presumably this is the humorous bit.
    It would make me look at other makes of car.

  22. Tom

    Boson, he has appeared in a number of adverts…they have raised awareness of his work which is a good thing. You know some people I work with do not even know who this man is?
    If this advert makes even a small handful of people aware of him and his lifes work its worth while.
    And if you think that appearing in an advert detracts from one of the greatest minds of not only our generation but countless others then you might want to reconsider your ability to laterally assess a situation. Next you’ll be telling me that Graham Bell life work is ruined because paris hilton owns a mobile phone……


    Brilliant advert from VW. Who gives a fuck what the prof thinks…’s not his voice is it.

  24. Sue

    I have just complained to Classic FM about the ad. I had no idea that it was in fact with the permission of Stephen Hawking and he has now gone down in my opinion.

  25. Ed1987

    Oh for chrissakes!
    Have you lot got nothing better to do than complain?!
    Have you seen Stephen Hawking working with people? He has a fantastic sense of humour.
    He may be disabled, but is quite possibly the most intelligent person living in the world at this time and therefore is perfectly able to make an informed judgement on his participation in this venture. Providing he was consulted there really isn’t an issue here.
    What about his voice being used on Pink Floyds “Keep Talking”?
    Belittling his achievements? Get a life!

  26. Penny Blake

    I think this ad is brilliant. “Does my head in”. Pure brilliance.

    Even if Hawking didnt give his permission who the hell are we to decide if its offensive? If he is happy then we should be.

    But getting back to the advert its brilliant because we have a serious scientist just, without warning, getting stuck on a simple problem.

    However, I know how they do it so cheap. Its called using cheap labour and refusing to give a pay rise for the last few years :)

  27. Judy P

    I think the ad is brilliant. Professor
    Stephen Hawkings last remark is so clever and really funny. Lighten up all you complainers. It is supposed to be funny and amusing – and I’m sure he enjoyed doing it.

  28. Peter Blackmore

    I’d like to send a message to all those people who complained about the Stephen Hawking ad.
    1) Check your facts before you start to squeal
    2) Give the man his due for having a sense of humour (which you clearly do not!) and
    3) GET A LIFE and stop telling others what they should feel.
    Those of us with disabilities have suffered for years from the attentions of you “holier than thou do-gooders”! We’re out of the institutions and on the streets. Bugger off and let us live our own lives!

  29. denise farnaby

    I too heard the ad and was appalled that such a man would consent to doing such a demeaning advert.I was about to complain as didn’t know he consented so am glad others felt the same.In fact couldnt remember what the ad was about as so annoyed about them using his voice.

  30. J R Hartley

    To Denise Farnaby:
    I wish I had your life where my biggest worry was being so annoyed by a disabled genius selling cars.

    What was it that annoyed you so much? Was it his his disability or did his voice grate on you? Either way, you’re ignorant and need to grow up and live in the real world.

  31. Outraged!!!!

    How DARE a disabled person make a funny advert or allow him or her self be associated with said funny advert. Don’t they know that their only purpose in life is to pitied and patronised by holier-than-thou do-gooders who have only their best interests at heart! God forbid Professor Hawkings should actually have a sense of humour.

  32. Jack

    GET A GRIP, you are all mad it’s an ad for a car at the end of the day and if he’s ok with it why are you not? There is stuff out there which is a lot more important and your having a go over that..ahah you make me laff like just as much as the ad did :)

  33. Graham S

    I totally agree with Peter, all those complaining should challenge their own prejudices. Stephen Hawking’s voice due to his genius is seen as a voice of authority, and would you believe it he has a sense of humour! Just because the the man has some physical disability doesn’t disqualify him from being involved in telling a joke. We have the Paralympics this week, wake up and see what see what people with disabilities can do. This isn’t the 1950’s.

  34. Judyp

    This advert isn’t about MND. The fact that the voice on the advert is Professor Stephen Hawking who sadly suffers severely with MND is neither here nor there.
    His voice is a machine, we know and accept that and immediately recognise who it is just as we would recognise the voice of a well know personality.
    The advert is quite brilliant in it’s subtlety and simplicity. Subtle because we know Professor Hawing to be one of the greatest minds on the planet at the moment and simple in the last statement he makes – ‘It does my head in!’ We hear that Prof. Hawing has a lovely sense of humour and I do not for one minute doubt that he was personally involved and probably enjoyed doing it. Just remember, people who suffer these heartbreaking conditions do not want to be categorized and set aside as being different.
    Not many adverts make me laugh, this one did. Well done VW and Professor Hawking.

  35. Callaway

    Great minds discuss ideas.
    Making it sound like Stephen Hawking has nothing else to do than advertise a new car is just insulting.

  36. Alex

    All the people making complaints are genuinely sad, do you all sit listening to classic fm and gold and have nothing better to do? You all make an issue out of nothing, if Stephen hawkings was bothered he would complain I’m sure he is aware of the ad,
    Also Stephen hawkings is quite a down to earth guy ,
    He has appeared on the us tv show the big bang theory a comedy show where he jokes and takes the mic a lot, go look it up on YouTube , shows the guy to be an average Joe.
    Why not find somthing better to do that waste VW time I bet hawkings did the ad because it’s apprent he has a sense of humour unlike the rest of you….

  37. Kelly

    Could someone clarify how it is offensive to other MND sufferers? I can see how Hawking may not have approved (even though it has been found he did) but the advert using Hawking’s voice in a light-hearted advert has nothing to do with MND in general?

  38. Kelly

    And Callway, great minds can still have down time. It’s insulting to assert he must be boring and can’t have any fun just because he also has a great mind.

  39. Watchkeeper

    I can’t believe the stuffed-shirt comments here. This ad is hilarious. Lighten up.

    For people to submit a complaint because of some perceived insult is ludicrous. It does my head in.

  40. David

    If Professor Hawking actually agreed to ‘appear’ in this ad and was fully aware of and supported the gist of the ad – that it blows the mind of a genius how VW can sell the UP for only £7995 – then fair enough. I don’t think those who found the ad offensive, myself included, did so because of anything to do with MND or that someone with a disability appears on the radio. At least two things about this ad bothered me: First, it felt that VW were exploiting, for financial gain, someone who either wouldn’t or couldn’t fight back because, let’s face it, no one can patent a synthesized voice; and second, towards the end of the ad the voice changed and became less a synthesized voice from a text-to-speech engine, and more a heavily modified human voice with tempo and inflection different to anything I’ve ever heard from Stephen Hawking. But hey, if he’s in on it then all I can say is “Nice one!”. If he’s not, which I suspect, then what I have to say is “Shame on you Volkswagen”.

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