Is this really America's most hated company? (No, it's not Comcast or Wal-Mart)

Generally when you think of the most-hated companies in the United States thoughts turn to cable/internet providers, retailers with reputations for paying poorly, or maybe one of the drug companies in the news for over-charging patients.

In reality though while Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) and other big cable and internet providers offer an easy target because the category is generally disliked, the major players in the space have made large efforts to turn around public perception. Comcast itself has made fixing its customer service a priority, hiring thousands of new service reps and even creating an app that lets customers track when their service technician will arrive.

It's also easy to point to a big retailer like Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), which has been hit with protests seeking higher wages. That too, however, has been mitigated by the company raising pay across the board and aggressively addressing the issues being raised by the public.

The drug companies being charged with overcharging for needed medicine might have taken the most-hated crown, but no one company impacts enough people to win the title. Instead, it can be argued that the most-hated company in America is a car maker which was formerly if not beloved, at least solidly liked. It's a case of where the above-mentioned companies may be reflexively disliked because they have committed various transgressions for a long time, but the hate burns brighter for a company guilty of fresh transgressions.

Is this the most-hated company in America?

Once a well-liked company with a strong reputation for quality, Volkswagen (NASDAQOTH: VLKAY) has fallen mightily since a 2015 emissions scandal. The company was found to have installed "cheat devices" on its diesel vehicles between 2009 and 2015 which allowed the cars to emit substantially fewer pollutants during emissions tests than during normal road use, the Los Angeles Times reported.

That scandal initially cost the company a $14.7 billion settlement which resulted in car owners receiving up to $10,000 each. It also later resulted in six executives from the company facing criminal charges for trying to obstruct the investigation into the scandal and the company paying a $2.8 billion criminal fine and $1.5 billion in civil penalties, USA Today reported.

"Volkswagen obfuscated, they denied and they ultimately lied," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told reporters.

History of Volkswagen
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History of Volkswagen
circa 1950: Rows of ' Beetle ' cars at a German Volkswagen plant. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
View of a Volkswagen Beetle, 1960s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
circa 1975: Volkswagen Beetle cars parked. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
DETROIT, UNITED STATES: Members of the media surround the new Volkswagen Beetle after its introduction 05 January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. The Beetle, the best selling car in history, is being offered on the US market after a 19 year absence. AFP PHOTO/Matt CAMPBELL (Photo credit should read MATT CAMPBELL/AFP/Getty Images)
The New 1999 Beetle From Volkswagon. The Trademark Beetle Body Shape Is Immediately Recognizable, Though It Shares No Parts With The Old Beetle. It's Both Larger (161.1 Inches In Length And 96.3 Cubic Feet Inside) And More Powerful Than Its Predecessor And The Engine Is No Longer In The Back. The Car Is Available With A New Turbocharged 150-Horsepower 1.8-Liter Four-Cylinder Engine, A 115-Horsepower 2.0-Liter Four-Banger Or A High-Tech Turbo Direct Injection Diesel Engine That Gets 48 Mpg On The Highway And Has A Driving Range Of 700 Miles. The New Beetle's A Truly Modern Volkswagen, With A Fully Galvanized Body And German Engineered Suspension. Plus A Security System, Airbags* And 6-Speaker Cassette Stereo. (Photo By Getty Images)
NUERBURGRING, GERMANY - OCTOBER 07: INTERNATIONALES ADAC EIFFELRENNEN 2000 Nuerburgring; VW NEW BEETLE CUP (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images)
384066 02: FILE PHOTO: The new Volkswagen 'Microbus' concept vehicle is displayed for this publicity photo. The Microbus was introduced January 7, 2001 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, MI. (Photo courtesy of Volkswagen/Newsmakers)
398508 01: UNDATED FILE PHOTO A redesigned Volkswagen Beetle is displayed in this undated file photograph. Volkswagen officially opened a new assembly hall near Dresden, Germany, December 11, 2001 to produce the new Phaeton luxury car, which represents a dramatic new step for the German car company away from its traditional medium and small car market. (Photo courtesy Volkswagen AG/Getty Images)
A worker walks past a Polo car at a production line in Shanghai Volkswagen Automotive Company, 09 June 2003. One out of every 120 Chinese now own their own car as the government announced that there were more than 10 million privately owned cars plying Chinese roads, state press said. AFP PHOTO/LIU Jin (Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 16: The Volkswagen Golf R32 on display during the Sydney International Motorshow at the Sydney Exhibition Centre October 16, 2003 in Sydney, Australia. The Sydney International Motorshow is the largest collection of automobiles on show in Australia with sixty new production models unveiled and concept vehicles on display. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
DETROIT - JANUARY 5: Volkswagen displays the Concept T vehicle at the North American International Auto Show January 5, 2004 in Detroit, Michigan. The show, which will feature more than 700 vehicles, opens to the public January 10. (Photo by Bryan Mitchell/Getty Images)
ZOUERAT, MAURITANIA: Finnish Juha Kankkunen drives his Volkswagen Touareg 05 January 2005, during the sixth stage of the 27th Dakar Rally between Smara and Zouerat in Mauritania. Reigning champion Stephane Peterhansel of France won the stage. Peterhansel, hampered by a cold for two days, crossed the finishing line in 4hr 0min 29sec to beat out fellow Mitsubishi driver, and two-time champion, Hiroshi Masuoka of Japan by 5min 58sec and the Volkswagen of Bruno Saby by 7min 26sec. AFP PHOTO MARTIN BUREAU (Photo credit should read MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images)
WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - MARCH 13: (L-R) Volkswagen Board members Detlef Wittig, Francisco Javier Garcia Sanz, Horst Neumann, Martin Winterkorn, Chairman of German automaker Volkswagen, Jochem Heizmann and CFO Hans Dieter Poetsch pose at the new Volkswagen model 'Scirocco' during the company's annual press conference on March 13, 2008 in Wolfsburg, Germany. The Volkswagen Group significantly increased its earnings last year. Profit before tax therefore grew to 6.5 billion euros. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Volkswagen's reputation takes a hit

The biggest fallout for the company may not be the financial hits it has taken, but the damage done to its reputation. In 2014, before the scandal broke, the company ranked second-from-the-top on the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) report on mass-market vehicles, scoring an 84. In 2015 the ACSI report was released before the scandal had broken wide, but after some vehicle owners were reporting problems. Because of that the company fell to the upper end of the middle of the pack, dropping to an 80.

In 2016, however, when the full news of the emissions scandal had broken, Volkswagen dropped to a 78, good for last place among mass-market vehicle companies.

"In a year when the auto industry has largely improved in customer satisfaction, Volkswagen declines 3% as it deals with the fallout of the emissions-cheating scandal that affected more than 500,000 diesel-powered vehicles in the United States and halted sales of new diesel vehicles until a fix is in place," wrote ACSI.

It was a stunning fall. From near-first (just a single point off on the ACSI scale in 2015), to dead last, in a market where every other brand except one (Buick, which dropped 1%) gained in customer satisfaction.

Volkswagen emissions scandal
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Volkswagen emissions scandal

Can VW come back?

It can be argued that Volkswagen is the most-hated company in America because its scandal so deeply undermined confidence in its products. This was not bad customer service, it was lying about the company's core product. Healing a wound like that takes time, contrition, and a genuine commitment to change.

A title like "most-hated," is of course debatable. It's easy to hate Wal-Mart and Comcast, but in some ways familiarity has dulled the impacts of those companies' transgressions and both have made positive steps.

Volkswagen however has just completed the penalty phase. The company has abused the public trust and that's not an easy wound to heal.

Still, Americans have genuinely been a forgiving people, and if the company shows a commitment to never doing something like this again, while also being more transparent, it's easy to see how Volkswagen could come back. Realistically, if Americans embraced a company founded under Adolph Hitler's Nazi party (which is how VW began), it can eventually forgive the company for its emission scandal.

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