Home » A Close Look At What The Volkswagen Super Bowl Commercial Actually Meant

A Close Look At What The Volkswagen Super Bowl Commercial Actually Meant

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If my quick skimming of the news-printouts from my Teletype are accurate, yesterday a musician named Taylor Swift won the Super Bowl athletic festival. Good for him! Of course, for many people, one of the most important parts of the Super Bowl is the commercials shown during the event, advertising a variety of dry goods, foodstuffs, nonparishable items, or intangible, vague services like insurance. One of these commercials was for Volkswagen, and was titled (because Super Bowl commercials get to have things like titles, being, you know, Big Deals) An American Love Story. As the name implies, this ad is very America-focused, which, for VW, means it starts, conveniently, in 1949.

Before we go any further, you should probably watch the ad:

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Now when I say it conveniently starts in 1949, I think you all know what I’m getting at; the Beetle actually started development, with Ferdinand Porsche in charge, in the 1930s, and was finalized in 1938 as the KdF-Wagen, which means “strength-through-joy” in German and, of course, is absolutely laden with Nazi shit.

Beetle1

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During the war, the factory mostly made wartime Kübelwagens and Schwimmwagens and other military vehicles, with no civilians getting any cars at all. After the war, the British took over the factory, and started producing some Beetles, mostly to get defeated Germans working again. Eventually, VW as the company we know today was formed postwar, and by 1949 they were starting to get confident enough to make a few “export” versions of the very spartan Beetle with chromed bumpers and trim, nicer upholstery, and all that sort of thing, and try to sell them outside of Germany.

So, that’s where VW’s story here starts, and why we see this man:

Benpon

I’m about certain that’s supposed to be Ben Pon, a Dutch importer of Volkswagens from quite early on – in 1947 he became the first to sell VWs outside of Germany, in his native Netherlands. He’s also the man who first tried to import two VWs to America, in 1949. We know the year because VW shows us in the ad:

Customsdoc

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So this has to be Ben Pon; despite the upbeat nature of the commercial, Pon did not have an easy time with his two Beetles in America – the ad, of course, just shows one. He was unable to find interested dealers, and the story goes that he had to sell one of the Beetles for $800 just to cover what he owed the Roosevelt hotel.

Realbenpon

For reference, that’s the real Ben Pon there, trying to unload a Beetle onto a fellow hat enthusiast. Note the opening doors, for easy entry and egress! I imagine him saying.

Later on, Pon would make more VW history with a quick, crude sketch of an imagined VW commercial vehicle that would one day become the famous VW Type 2 Microbus:

 

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Benponsketch

From there the commercial shows some nice shots of the Beetle looking out of place on American roads, surrounded by hulking early 1950s American cars.

Beetle Street1

There’s even a little dig at American car marketing and advertising, something that Volkswagen definitely and very famously defied with its honest, humble approach taken by the Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency, which was one of the key parts of their success in America.

Beetle Street Ad

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I do like this fake ad they made for a generic ’50s-looking car with a colossal grille, and the inane “Bigger & Better…than last year!” tagline, which, of course, was the opposite of how VW positioned themselves.

There’s also a shot of a Beetle in a car dealership, and I wonder if this is supposed to be Max Hoffman’s Manhattan dealership, even though the cars in it other than the Beetle appear to be American, and not the Jaguars and other European cars Hoffman specialized in. Hoffman started importing Beetles in 1950, and while he wasn’t terribly successful, he did better than Pon. By 1955 VW of America was founded, and took over US sales.

Bug Dealer

Interestingly, this Beetle seems to be the same ’49 we saw on the docks earlier, with its external horn, banana-style bumper overriders, and twist-style hood handle.

That Beetle in the dealership has been spotted by these attractive beatniks:

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Beatniks

…which I guess shows the Beetle’s enduring appeal to youth and counterculture movements.

There’s a scene that comes up soon afterwards that really caught my attention, for reasons that will be clear in a moment. It’s this cute little scene of a dad making his Beetle “talk” to his little son by opening and closing the trunk like a mouth:

Dadtrunk

This resonated with me very directly because back in 2016 I was in a documentary about the Beetle, and I did this exact same thing with my kid, Otto:

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Meotto Trunk

What are the odds of that? Did some ad agency see this clip and get inspired, or am I being delusional?

Crambeetle

The scenes of people cramming into what appears to be a blue ’63 Beetle are, of course, based on real attempts to cram people into Beetles, which I’ve seen records that claim an improbable-sounding 57 and some that claim a still-impressive but more likely 20.

There’s scenes of people hitchhiking and getting picked up by a VW bus, and then some shots from Herbie movies, including this one from Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (you can tell by the external fuel filler there):

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Herbiewheelie

There’s also an interesting little clip from Herbie Rides Again (1974) where Herbie drives over another Beetle like a ramp, and soars off of a building:

Herbiejump

This shot is interesting because I believe Herbie here is not the usual 1963 Beetle, but a later Beetle, I think a ’71 Super Beetle (note bumpers and front fender shape). Also, the beetle acting as a ramp has a very strange engine lid, with the twin vents of a ’70-’71 but a license plate light that’s way too low. Also, the rear window looks deeply inset, making me think the body has been reinforced there.

That’s a bit of a tangent for this VW ad, but it’s still important, dammit. Then there’s a couple clips from this famous VW commercial where a Bug gets roughed up a bit, then floated in some water:

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Then, of course, we have the requisite hippies and Beetles at Woodstock, then more hippies, this time with Buses at the beach, and then the water-cooled era gets introduced, interestingly, with this short clip from the “Champagne Edition” commercial from 1978:

Champagne

That commercial featured Rabbits, Sciroccos, and Dashers prominently (with a Bus and convertible Beetle in the background):

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Honestly, the Champagne Edition feels like a sort of strange reference, but I suppose you can’t beat it, visually.

We also get some rallying Golfs and an interesting bit of warning/disclaimer text over a scene of people skateboarding around a Rabbit Convertible/Cabriolet:

Warning

The warning, “If you’re not living in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, do not attempt” is funny, but I’m a bit confused. Is this referring to just … skateboarding around a Rabbit Convertible at dusk, or was this retroactive for all the goings-on shown before? Well, the goings on from the 1970s to the 1990s, I guess? It’s not clear.

We then get some shots of the modern VW enthusiast scene, with many lovely lowered Beetles and Microbuses and Rabbits, then we get a short Simpsons clip about the “punch buggy” game:

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Simp Punchbuggy1

Interestingly, this clip stops before the real VW action starts, as Bart and Lisa there are passing by a massive seller of classic VW Beetles:

Simp Punchbuggy 2

(Images: Frinkiac, the Samba)

Even more interesting is the fact that the cars featured on the Volkswagen World sign appear to be a pair of Hebmuellers! Hebmueller was a coachbuilder that made an alternate version of the convertible Beetle with a dramatically different rear body, and even a few hardtop coupés, which is what looks like is depicted on that sign. The Beetles in the lot don’t look like that, so someone knew the difference! Was this a deliberate choice by the Simpsons artists? Was there a secret VW geek on staff?

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Vader

We then get some more modern VW shots and a lovely wedding with a white Tiguan (I wish that couple better luck than I’ve had) and a nice callback to one of VW’s more fun Super Bowl ads, The Force, from 2011:

That’s still fun.

The ad ends with what is clearly VW’s hopes for the future: that they can reclaim their former status as an innovative, friendly, honest maker of soulful cars – after some pretty debilitating missteps – with the new ID.Buzz electric minivan.

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Idbuzz1

Will this reborn Microbus be enough to recapture what Volkswagen has, frankly, lost? Will modern versions of those 1950s beatniks actually have their attention grabbed by a passing ID.Buzz as they walk by a vintage Beetle in a window display?

Moderncouple

Maybe. But will they be able to afford it? Volkswagen got where they are and earned their early reputation by building honest, simple, reliable cars for the people, all people, because they made affordable cars. Does VW still do that? The ID.Buzz, despite the appealing retro design, is not retro-priced. It’s not going to be able to catch on in a big way among the youth because the youth can’t afford it. It’s for now-rich people with nostalgia for the days before they were rich.

Does all of this focus on the Beetle hint at future VW plans? Will we get an electric ID.Bugg or whatever, an electric take on the Beetle? And if we do, will it be another retro-styled pastiche or will it actually strive to reach the original’s goals of affordability and accessibility for everyone?

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I don’t really know, but based on recent history, I don’t think I should get my hopes up too much. Still, I’m always happy and willing to be surprised, especially by VW.

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AircooleDrew
AircooleDrew
8 days ago

I loved the ad, but all it made me do was reminisce on how quirky and fun the VW of yesterday was. My mom and dad both had Beetles as their first cars in the late 70’s, and I have a 1968 Beetle myself that I’ve spent years restoring with my dad. These cars mean a ton to me, but I have never owned a modern one, and never plan to, especially now that their days of manual transmissions and wagons are long gone.

Oh well, at least there are still plenty of proper aircooled VW’s out there for the taking!

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
9 days ago

My sister thought this commercial was going to introduce a new Beetle and was very excited at the prospect (she likes new Beetles), only to be bitterly disappointed when that was not the case.

Probably for the best, as with VW’s over-reliance on cheap plastic engine parts that break after a few heat cycles, and my sister currently being used to 2000s Honda reliability… I think her VW Beetle dream is best left as a fantasy, at least until VW can get their act together and ACTUALLY return to their roots.

Last edited 9 days ago by Austin Vail
Craig Christie
Craig Christie
9 days ago

I’ve been a lifelong fan German cars in general, worked at a VW/Audi/Porsche dealership out of school a few years… but have been almost completely turned off by them the past 10-15 years. I’d have to win the lottery to afford something remotely interesting. They’ve prioritized heat sensitive fragile plastic engine parts and gimmicky over-complication. Also, the last VW van sold in NA was literally a rebadged Dodge Caravan. I want an X Bus (https://electricbrands.de/en/myxbus/) infinitely more than the new VW Bus.

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
9 days ago

Dad says the VW bug he brought from Germany in 1955 was a ’51 bug with ’49 running gear. During transit the front bumper got mangled and twisted up into the air. And long with the preservative applied to the car, it looked a mess. When dad brought it into the San Francisco dealer the manager quickly told him to take it around the back to get it out of the public eye. Hard enough to sell, let alone with an ugly one around. It was a shebadock version (his mangled German) with the canvas sunroof.

Vic Vinegar
Vic Vinegar
9 days ago

All the commercial did was get me to revisit Volkswagen history and be disgusted.

How the hell did Ferdinand Porsche and Anton Piech (yes, father of Ferdinand Piech) basically get off with barely a consequence after running a forced labor camp (aka the Volkswagen (now) Wolfsburg factory) in support of the Nazi war machine?

MAX FRESH OFF
MAX FRESH OFF
9 days ago
Reply to  Vic Vinegar

They spent 6 months in prison as war criminals but that was pretty much a slap on the wrist.

Torque
Torque
10 days ago

Good article Jason.
I didn’t even bother to turn the sound on when this ad came on.
VW (at least in the US Market) hasn’t brought anything truly fun/interesting like the original Bus or Beatle since the Coraddo or maybe the last VW Van (Eurovan) bc there was nothing quite like it & that was +20 years ago now.
All their products (that I can think of, minus maybe the 1st gen Taureg with the base v6) in the past 20 years have been unreliable and expensive to maintain.
So one needs to go back to try to capture the nostalgic feels to a carefully crafted time frame since (as you (Jason)) pointed out VW started out of a Nazi idea (with ironically stolen Jewish engineer underpinnings (Ala Tatra T97)).

The closest mainstream brand I can think of of what VW used to be is ironically w/in the VAG umbrella in Skoda, which are still (I think) affordable cars that have some unique and intelligent design features

Torque
Torque
10 days ago
Reply to  Torque

And (I think) Skoda’s are reliable

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
9 days ago
Reply to  Torque

ehhh, Skodas still use VW running gear, they’re just a better value as a new car than VWs. Once the warranty is up, the usual VW issues apply.

But, Skodas are mostly sold in smaller countries where you’re not driving as far to go anywhere in the first place, so they can last a long time due to not acquiring a lot of miles in that timeframe. VW has a crap reputation because they sell cars in America, where cars need to last 200k-300k miles because everything is far apart, and VWs don’t do that.
I’d love to see Skoda stateside anyway, but I doubt they’d fare much better.

Last edited 9 days ago by Austin Vail
Auto Guy
Auto Guy
10 days ago

Jason, wishing you good health and a speedy recovery !

The ad was wonderful, and your analysis spot on. For me, the reveal of the bus at the end shows that VW has continued to lose the thread: the whimsical styling of the original bus is missing, and the whole nomenclature of VW’s electric line is deeply unfortunate.

Glutton for Piëch
Glutton for Piëch
10 days ago

This shit just made me sad, because VW has completely lost the plot. I’ve been saying it for years, but they’re trying to beat Toyota by becoming Toyota. They used to be bigger than Toyota precisely because they weren’t.

Nowadays you get all the VW drawbacks and none of the VW benefits. There’s not a single product the core brand makes today that I would spend my own money on, which is shocking because aside from the Stinger and two E classes, every car I’ve ever owned (and currently own) is VAG. I’ve converted nearly every person in my life into VAG (haha) and now I’m looking around wondering what the fuck happened.

I sincerely hope they get it together and find the magic again, cause it’s been a sad ~decade to be a VW slut.

El Chubbacabra
El Chubbacabra
10 days ago

I don’t know what’s the deal with an owl but I’m sure it’s superb!

Mrbrown89
Mrbrown89
10 days ago

This commercial reminds me on how my parents met. Living on a small town, people used to drive around the main street, people parked on the side of the street and play music, drinks involved, no rules. My mom was driving her yellow beetle with her friends (high school time) and my dad was on the side of the street hanging out with his friends, he also owned a beetle. Traffic came to a halt, of course the boys made their move, she parked, the rest is history. Beetles were the first cars for all my family members, the first car I drove and all my cousins learned on how to drive stick.

That’s why I bought one here in the US, it means a lot to my family and when my parents came and gave them the surprise, I could tell on their face their joy of driving it. The noise, the smell, there is something about it that no other car can replicate it.

TDI in PNW
TDI in PNW
10 days ago

Indeed, VW isn’t what it used to be. I like my B7 Passat, but VW had gone cheap with that series, it was a downgrade from a B6 experience. Looking at cars to buy lately, VW isn’t even on my radar. If only the Arteon was more compelling beyond just being gorgeous, that one might be… It’s looking like a 2022 Stinger GT2 will be my next car now that I’ve driven one.

Glutton for Piëch
Glutton for Piëch
10 days ago
Reply to  TDI in PNW

That was literally my experience when I bought my GT2 in 2018. Even the B9 S5 SB didn’t excite me the way the B8 did, and the Arteon was just way too damn expensive for being a Golf Sportback…

I eventually sold the Stinger because it never captured my heart the way Piëch-ish era VAG (or my other love, Mercedes) does, but it was probably the *best car* I ever owned.

Last edited 10 days ago by Glutton for Piëch
TDI in PNW
TDI in PNW
9 days ago

So… I did not realize that they updated the Arteon and it has a Golf R motor now. I’m going to have to go drive that. I may just get another Volkswagen after all.

Glutton for Piëch
Glutton for Piëch
8 days ago
Reply to  TDI in PNW

Yeah, they did. But I have something perverse deep in my soul that prevents me from owning a gigantic sedan with a 4 banger (or transverse layout- and now I’m wondering if it has the Golf Rs new rear diff tbh). Especially when it’s common knowledge they developed a 3.0 TT VR6 for it and dropped it. And I just won’t support that modern VW with my dollars.

I mean, they still get the Porsche money, but I gets Porsche. So, less mad about that.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
10 days ago

I caught most of this ad while avoiding watching the sportsball game and was disappointed I didn’t see more A1 cars since one my first cars was a Champagne Edition Scirocco. Then again my last VW was an A1 Jetta in the 90s. Today I saw an Atlas and was struck by how un VW it looked. The thing could be a Honda Pilot or Kia Telluride if you took off the badge.

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
10 days ago

> nonparishable items

Is that food only atheists eat?

Dogpatch
Dogpatch
10 days ago

I’m a proud air cooled VW owner from back in the early 70’s.
Beetles , buses ,fastbacks ,square backs I’ve had them all.
Currently I’ve got a 63 Crewcab truck ( 3 doors for those not familiar) and 2 square backs that are in my fleet now.
The crewcab truck is by far the most expensive car that we own .
Its got a feature that I wish that new trucks now had.
Fold down sides and gate that turn it into an instant flatbed .
It’s a very basic truck that probably wouldn’t turn on the younger crowd now because it doesn’t even have a radio let alone power plug to charge a phone but it sure is useful and turns a lot of heads .
If VW would sell just a basic bus or crewcab truck with fold down sides in the ID buzz format at a price that was reasonable for a new buyer it might work.
But I’m old and practical what do I know?

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
10 days ago
Reply to  Dogpatch

My Grandpa bought a 1960 or 61 Crewcab new. That thing kicked ass. I wish there was a way to upload the photo of him standing next to it. Very cool truck. I envy you.

Torque
Torque
10 days ago
Reply to  Dogpatch

There Are new basic trucks that come with fold down sides and back sold today!
Unfortunately for most of the readers here they are sold in markets outside of North America
There seems to be a ginormous hole in the North American auto market for basic small utilitarian trucks. I know Toyota has a super cheap truck in the IMV 0 I hope they offer it here and that sparks other competition!
Personally I also hope Telo makes it to market with their dream of a modern small 4 door ev truck as.well

https://www.roadandtrack.com/reviews/a45752401/toyotas-10000-future-pickup-truck-is-basic-transportation-perfection/

https://www.telotrucks.com/

OnceInAMillenia
OnceInAMillenia
10 days ago

The thing that bugs me about most VW of America ads like this is they’ll show how cool and exciting their product line /used/ to be with images of Rabbits, Sciroccos, Dashers, Golf/Rabbit, the Bus, and the Beetle but don’t mention, oh yeah, we don’t sell any of those anymore.

How can a company encourage people to connect with its soulful past when the company has actively and consistently killed off that past?

As for the new bus, I have no idea how it’s supposed to appeal to the Youths when there hasn’t been a VW van in the US for 20+ years now for them to feel nostalgic for.

Bryan McIntosh
Bryan McIntosh
10 days ago

I grabbed one of the last of the Mk. VII Golfs that made it to Canada, and every time I take it in for regular maintenance I am struck by the fact that aside from the new GTI and Golf R there is NOTHING in their lineup I am interested in. My wife and I would want the smaller ID.Buzz if they bothered to bring it over here; when I showed her Rory Reid’s preview of it she said “That’s the only van I’ll ever drive, it’s cute and has personality!”

On a happier note, though, the clip of the man making the frunk of his Beetle talk to his young son made me think of how much of my son’s life has been shaped by our 2019 Golf. He was brought home from the hospital in it, and it’s been the vehicle that takes him to many wonderful experiences away from our home. With meticulous maintenance it’s been trouble-free for four years so far, although I am waiting for the wastegate solenoid to fail in a few years then see whether it’s worth paying to keep the car going or not. :\

OnceInAMillenia
OnceInAMillenia
10 days ago
Reply to  Bryan McIntosh

You’re more forgiving than I am. I’m not a fan of the mk8 – it looks too much like the Hyundai Elantra GT from a few years ago now but 2-3x the pics. I similarly lost interest when they killed the base Golf, Sportwagen, and Alltrack in 2020.

Bryan McIntosh
Bryan McIntosh
10 days ago

Ohh, I don’t want to own the Mk. VIII either. The capacitive buttons alone are a deal-breaker, especially after the truly wonderful button-placement in the Mk. VII.

Torque
Torque
10 days ago

And the new ev vw van will probably cost $80k

Usernametaken
Usernametaken
10 days ago

Here in Soviet Canuckistan VW has taken to running ads touting their total cost of ownership with the snappy catch line “Volkswagen ownership, more affordable than you think”. I think often of Jason’s (and everyone else I know who owns a modern VW) experience.

The sheer fact that this is where they’re at with advertising says they’ve already lost

https://www.vw.ca/en/why-vw/cost-of-ownership.html

OnceInAMillenia
OnceInAMillenia
10 days ago
Reply to  Usernametaken

This is hilarious to think of given my Honda CRZ and GTI both went in for a 30,000 mile service within a month of each other and the VW cost 2.3x as much

Last edited 10 days ago by OnceInAMillenia
Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
10 days ago

Great article and great support for mentioning nazi past. Now I know VW and it’s affiliates do not have nazi beliefs. Just like Henry Ford was a sympathizer and Ford is nowhere close to nazi sympathy. However, Science teaches us energy cannot be created or destroyed so as VW and Ford leave the evil beliefs behind China has taken it up. They steal technology so cheaper than developing it, they take certain races and enslave them feeding them gruel and beating them to work so far cheaper than paying hard working union workers. So now they sell the vehicles for thousands less. And then ignorant masses line up to buy them. Do they think that buying them affects the salaries that manufacturers can pay union members? Duh no idea. Do they worry slaves, not employees who accepted the job ate beaten and enslaved, not too mention quality suffers, do they even consider the Chinese have attempted to control the minerals that batteries are built with? No they apparently are pretty ignorant and willfully so. I just can’t grasp anything so clearly seen and yet so clearly ignored.

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
10 days ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

You know, that’s a good point when presented in that particular context.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
11 days ago

The Vader helmets are the best. But it would have been cooler if they had shown him driving the black bug. Or driving every VW model shown.
Now I want to get a Vader helmet and an old bug. And drive around wearing it.

40 years ago there was a guy in our area who drove around wearing an latex full head of Mr. Spock. And a stupid blue t-shirt.

We all need a little free entertainment.

JunkInTheFrunk
JunkInTheFrunk
11 days ago

There is no marketing in the world that can fix the mediocrity of the current VW lineup. In less than 20 years, they have plummeted from quirky, fun and luxurious to a second tier Hyundai competitor.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
10 days ago
Reply to  JunkInTheFrunk

I think that’s an insult to Hyundai.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
11 days ago

Can attest from personal experience that yes, a stock beetle does float. For a good while. Even with four stoned high school freaks inside.

Note: When you have floated too far from shore, DO NOT open doors.
Better to climb out thru the sunroof, or windows to swim it back to shore.

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
10 days ago
Reply to  Col Lingus

They had to pull more than a couple of Beetles out of the lake near us.

MrLM002
MrLM002
11 days ago

I wish BMW would take the millions they spent on advertising the ID Buzz in the US and actually put it towards getting Production for the ID Buzz started in the US.

A $60K+ BEV passenger Van of questionable durability and reliablity propped up on the nostalga of cheap vans that were both durable and reliable isn’t going to sell well, especially when you don’t sell them for years after announcing them in the US!

MrLM002
MrLM002
10 days ago
Reply to  MrLM002

Why the hell did I type BMW -_-

I meant VW.

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