How do you advertise modesty in the land of unlimited possibilities? That was the task Volkswagen faced back in the fifties, when they decided to cross the big pond with their infamous Beetle.
Imagine you’re a young German car manufacturer without a large marketing budget and you’d like to sell your small 4 cilinder car in the United States. The country where large, luxury V8’s have become the reference. What do you do? That’s the question Volkswagen is facing after the second world war. They take aboard the advertising company DDB, that agrees to take on the task on a small budget. It’s this relatively new firm that will be responsible for the revolutionary sixties VW ads.
In 1949 William Bernbach and two of his colleagues, Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane, found the Manhattan based advertising company DDB. What these three gentlemen have done for Volkswagen is simply brilliant. They chose a completely different approach. No more need for speed, luxury and horsepower, no, they chose to stick with a few strong points of the brand and emphasised the critical ones. Besides that, they tried to picture the little car with human characteristics. Not forgetting a serious dab of humour into the equation. Think Small, Lemon and Impossible are the slogans that had to depict the Beetle as a small, compact, spacious, economical, fun and touchable car. A modest quality product amidst its materialistic surroundings.
The first ads are an instant succes. The ‘Lemon’ campaign starts with the words ‘This Volkswagen missed the boat. Due to the damaged chrome strip on the glove compartment that needs to be replaced.’ In these days it was unheard of that a car manufacturer called their own product a ‘lemon’. Lemon has a negative undertone and no manufacturer in its right mind would compare their product to it. In the short comment beneath the ad they explain that one on fifty produced cars fail quality control because of minor defects. ‘Because VW wants you to pick the plums, while VW picks the lemons for you.’ In short, the customer is entitled to the highest quality. Research tells that ‘Lemon’ was one of Volkswagens most effective ads ever.
The same goes for the idea to say ‘Think small’ on the car you want to sell. ‘Bigger is better’ in the America of the nineteen sixties. Julian Koenig at DDB comes up with the ‘Think Small’ campaign. It’s the beginning of the hippie era, where materialism starts to earn a completely new place in society. The boys in advertising have a sixth sense for these new times. The Beetle as wel as the Bus become the symbol of the hippie movement. Not without succes, sales are rocketing sky high. Not bad for a car that was conceived as Hitlers baby only fifteen years earlier. Ad Age, a magazine dedicated to the advertising and media market, declared this campaign the best of the 20th century. Alas the DDB archives went up in flames, so we can’t but enjoy these pieces of art on archived newspaper clippings.
The VW ads are a perfect balance between image, text and simplicity. And a sprinkling of humour. The nucleus of Bernbach’s advertising strategy always was not over analysing the ad while creating it. In his words: ‘It’s like love, the more you analyse it, the faster it disappears’. Forget about clichés and logic, logic doesn’t attract attention. My own personal favourite is the ‘Presenting America’s Slowest Fastback’ ad. Using the underdog position as a strongpoint in the ad. Tongue in cheek humour that simply worked. Let’s be honest, these ads touched all of us. We all developed a soft spot for the Beetle. Even the Americans fell for the little German car.