Volk­swa­gen Cri­sis: Brand that In­vented Mod­ern Ad­ver­tis­ing is Dented


I’ve al­ways as­sumed it was sim­ple for com­pa­nies to re­alise that the most im­por­tant as­set they have is trust. With­out it, there’s not a lot you can do to build a sus­tain­able busi­ness. That Volk­swa­gen ap­pears to have for­got­ten this un­shake­able rule is re­mark­able con­sid­er­ing the car maker’s his­tory.

It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that Volk­swa­gen changed the way that we talk to con­sumers. To­gether with cre­ative agency DDB from the late 1950s and through the 1960s, they pro­duced some en­dur­ingly won­der­ful ad­verts. That golden era laid the foun­da­tions for a part­ner­ship that has en­dured un­til the present day and con­tin­ued to pro­duce a num­ber of great ads along the way.

When VW launched into the US shortly af­ter World War II, it was sell­ing one mass-mar­ket car: the Type 1 Bee­tle. It faced a unique prob­lem. Not only was its car Euro­pean, which was not seen as a good thing back then, it was com­ing from Amer­ica’s wartime en­emy.

The com­pany’s first cou­ple of at­tempts to mar­ket the car in the US were un­suc­cess­ful, so VW es­tab­lished a net­work of deal­ers. This saw a dra­matic rise in sales – from around 2,000 cars in 1953 to more than 150,000 by 1958. VW didn’t do any ad­ver­tis­ing at all be­cause it felt that the stan­dard ad­ver­tis­ing of the late 1950s was not how it wanted to talk to its cus­tomers.

That all changed when a Ger­man called Carl Hahn ar­rived to head up VW’S US divi­sion in 1959. He saw that the best way to in­crease sales was to build the brand through ad­ver­tis­ing. By his own es­ti­mate he met with more than 4,000 ad­men over a three-month pe­riod, but he was far from im­pressed. He saw an industry that was in­fat­u­ated with re­search, think tanks and brain­storm­ing (sound fa­mil­iar?), but pro­duc­ing lousy ad­ver­tis­ing.

Here are a cou­ple of ex­am­ples of the sort of ad­verts that were run­ning at the time in the US, the first for Silva Thin cig­a­rettes and the sec­ond for Ford cars:

As you can see, ad­ver­tis­ing in that era wasn’t ter­ri­bly so­phis­ti­cated. It tended to be boast­ful and show off, and didn’t talk to peo­ple in a man­ner that res­onated with their own lives.

While Hahn had been de­spair­ing at the cal­i­bre of ad­men that he had been meet­ing, for­tune played its

hand. One of the VW dis­trib­u­tors knew of DDB and told him he should meet with them. DDB, orig­i­nally known as Doyle Dane Bern­bach, was a New-york­based agency that was al­ready forg­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a mav­er­ick – pro­duc­ing out­stand­ing cre­ative work for com­pa­nies such as Po­laroid, Levy’s Rye Bread and El Al Air­line. Hahn was im­pressed by the agency’s con­fi­dence and the qual­ity of its work – as well as the fact that it didn’t show him any spec­u­la­tive VW work. DDB’S think­ing was that it wouldn’t be rep­re­sen­ta­tive be­cause it wouldn’t in­clude the client’s in­put.

With the agency ap­pointed, DDB put to­gether the ac­count team: art di­rec­tor Hel­mut Krone and copy­writer Ju­lian Koenig. Along with in­put from co-owner Bill Bern­bach, they changed the face of the ad­ver­tis­ing world. They in­tro­duced re­al­is­tic pho­to­graphs rather than ide­al­is­tic re­touched ones. They got rid of as­pi­ra­tional set­tings and fe­males draped across car body­work and even started talk­ing to the reader in a friendly man­ner. The ads were sim­ple, strik­ing and slightly self-dep­re­cat­ing. And they were light years away from any other car ad­ver­tis­ing at the time. Here are a cou­ple of ex­am­ples:

This tone of voice that DDB de­vel­oped is as im­por­tant as the clean, mod­ern lay­outs that the cam­paign gave us. It started a rev­o­lu­tion in how we talk to con­sumers (though a huge num­ber of com­pa­nies have never learned). In what is my favourite quote of the genre, Hel­mut Krone summed it up as fol­lows:

"A lit­tle ad­mis­sion gains a great ac­cep­tance."

In short, if you’re hon­est con­sumers will trust you. They know you’ll give it to them straight, what­ever the news.

Tele­vi­sion talk­ing

VW/DDB also brought their quirky self-dep­re­ca­tion and sim­plic­ity to TV screens. Here’s a lovely ex­am­ple from 1964.

Be­cause the ad’s not crammed from start to fin­ish with waf­fle, you re­ally pay at­ten­tion when they ask the hook ques­tion:

Have you ever won­dered how the man who drives the snow plough drives to the snow plough?

And the an­swer:

This one drives a Volk­swa­gen. So you can stop won­der­ing.

In a 60-sec­ond ad­vert there’s just over ten sec­onds of voice. That, again, was hugely un­usual. Most ad­verts worked on the prin­ci­ple of re­peat­ing the mes­sage as of­ten as they could. Which of­ten has the un­wanted ef­fect of mak­ing your au­di­ence think you think they’re stupid.

Quite pos­si­bly, the cre­ative work that VW and DDB pro­duced is the most im­por­tant in the his­tory of ad­ver­tis­ing. It drove VW Bee­tle sales in the US to a record 570,000 a year in 1970, and set the tone both for mod­ern ad­ver­tis­ing and an­other 50 years of VW ad­ver­tis­ing from the same agency – you can see the con­sis­tency in style from the two ads be­low from 1998 (left) and 2003 (right).

Hav­ing spent decades build­ing up the trust be­tween con­sumer and car maker that has en­sured VW’S sur­vival well into the 21st cen­tury, no doubt Hel­mut Krone and his col­leagues will be spin­ning in their graves at the cur­rent cri­sis. Once you’ve lied and been found out, it’s in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to re­gain that trust. Pity the cre­ative team that has to try and help put it right.



Clas­sic VW ad from 1962.

Ford cars

Makes your house look big­ger (1964)

Wilt Cham­ber­lain (1966)

Silva Thins

One of the most iconic cam­paign in ad­ver­tis­ing by Doyle Dane Bern­back.

TV com­mer­cial film for Volk­swa­gen "Snow Plow" - 1964

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