The ad showed a pair of giant white hands moving a black man away from a new yellow Volkswagen Golf before flicking him into a café called “Petit Colon” – French for little colonist.
Commentators on Twitter and Instagram also noted that as the German-language slogan “Der Neue Golf” – “The New Golf” – fades into view, the jumble of letters can be read as a racial slur for a brief moment.
While others said the hand could be interpreted as making a “white power” gesture.
The German carmaker pulled the 10-second video from its social media accounts on Wednesday following the outcry, saying it could “understand the outrage and anger”.
The company said in a statement: “Without question: the video is inappropriate and tasteless. We will clarify how something like this could happen, and there will be consequences.”
The Wolfsburg-based automaker, founded under the Nazis to produce “the people’s car,” said that given its history it has always sought to “position itself against all forms of racism, xenophobia and discrimination”.
“Many initiatives in the company and in our global workforce promote diversity, integration and unprejudiced cooperation,” Volkswagen said. “That makes it all the more annoying that we made this mistake.”
Juergen Stackmann, the VW brand’s board member for sales and marketing, and Elke Heitmueller, head of diversity management, took to Twitter and LinkedIn to apologise.
They wrote: “We understand the public outrage at this. Because we’re horrified, too. This video is an insult to all achievements of the civil rights movement. It is an insult to every decent person.”
The company’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years after it admitted cheating diesel emissions tests.
And it is not the first time it has had to apologise for a controversial advert.
In 2013, the company faced calls to pull a Super Bowl advert which featured a white actor speaking with a Jamaican accent as he attempts to cheer his colleagues up.
Volkswagen defended the advert at the time, saying it had consulted 100 Jamaicans and used a dialect coach.
Additional reporting by Associated Press.