SMALL, UGLY & LEMON

Volk­swa­gen’s US and UK ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns for the Bee­tle were in­spired. By hav­ing fun, mak­ing peo­ple laugh and tak­ing the mickey, they helped turn it into the best-sell­ing car ever

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Volkswagen At 80 - PHOTOGRAPHYCour­tesy of Alfredo Mar­can­to­nio WORDS Richard Gunn

It was a tough gig: take a cheap, com­pact, anachro­nis­tic, funny-look­ing car with a ‘dif­fi­cult’ past and con­quer the world with it. Dur­ing the 1950s, when au­to­mo­tive ad­ver­tis­ing was all glitz, glam­our and how many horses were un­der the bon­net, it might have seemed im­pos­si­ble. For­tu­nately for am­bi­tious but fledg­ling Volk­swa­gen, still re­build­ing from World War II, it de­cided to go to one of the most in­no­va­tive and cre­ative Amer­i­can ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies: Doyle Dane Bern­bach (DDB). What fol­lowed was lit­tle short of com­mer­cial ge­nius.

DDB was formed by Bill Bern­bach, Ned Doyle and Mac Dane in New York City in 1949. This was one year af­ter the Bri­tish Army (which had run it since the war ended) had given VW back to the Ger­man peo­ple. So both firms were young and ea­ger. In VW’s case, that meant crack­ing ex­port mar­kets, but there was a prob­lem – its car was a by-prod­uct of a ter­ri­ble global con­flict still very fresh in peo­ple’s minds. ‘Con­ceived by Adolf Hitler, de­signed by Porsche, driven by the Third Re­ich’ pos­si­bly wasn’t go­ing to be the great­est ad­ver­tis­ing tag line ever. The Bee­tle was also un­con­ven­tional, util­i­tar­ian, small and slow – not ex­actly fac­tors that screamed success to po­ten­tial buyers. As one US show­room vis­i­tor noted: ‘It looked like a mo­torised tor­toise.’

Volk­swa­gens had been reach­ing the USA since the 1940s, brought back by GIs who’d served in Ger­many. But it wasn’t un­til 1953 that the com­pany se­ri­ously es­tab­lished a foothold there. That year, it sold 2000 ve­hi­cles. By 1958, it was sell­ing 150,000. But that was largely on word of mouth alone.

So, in 1959, Volk­swa­gen went look­ing for some­one to han­dle its ad­ver­tis­ing. Af­ter meet­ing 400 ad men, the boss of Volk­swa­gen of Amer­ica, Carl Hahn, set­tled on DDB. He later said he re­garded the other firms as ‘all a bunch of phonies’ but DDB was ‘ hon­est’. Of course, it per­haps helped that the agency’s art direc­tor, Hel­mut Krone, also owned a Bee­tle.

DDB de­cided to go com­pletely against the grain by adopt­ing a back-to-ba­sics ap­proach on which to spend its ini­tial an­nual bud­get of $800,000. Which wasn’t a lot for a coun­try the size of the USA. In some re­spects that helped to dic­tate the cam­paign – usu­ally black and white, with sim­ple copy text and plain photographs rather than spend­ing a for­tune on exotic lo­ca­tions, fash­ion mod­els and ex­pen­sive pho­tog­ra­phy. A prime ex­am­ple of this min­i­mal­ist ap­proach came in 1961, with one ad just show­ing a blank space rather than a photo. ‘No point in show­ing the ’62 Volk­swa­gen. It still looks the same’ went the tag. Back in Ger­many, se­nior VW man­age­ment was ap­palled… un­til US deal­ers re­ported back a big rise in peo­ple pop­ping into show­rooms, just to see in the metal what wasn’t be­ing shown on pa­per.

But what most dis­tin­guished the ad­ver­tis­ing and made it – and what it was pro­mot­ing – such a stand-out was its self-dep­re­cat­ing comic tone. Other ad­verts trum­peted how won­der­ful their prod­ucts were, to the point of overem­bel­lish­ment, hy­per­bole and even lies. ‘Hon­est’ DBB just told it as it was. The Bee­tle wasn’t the best-look­ing, best-per­form­ing or besthandling car, it wasn’t an­nu­ally up­dated (at least cos­met­i­cally) and it didn’t make you look sex­ier. But, boy, was it ro­bust, easy to park, re­li­able, and cheap to buy and run. The ads de­lighted in a mickey-tak­ing sense of jok­i­ness that endeared them to a pub­lic jaded by tra­di­tional overex­ag­ger­a­tion. The most fa­mous of these were the ‘Lemon’ and ‘Think Small’ ad­verts. ‘Lemon’ seemed to por­tray the Bee­tle as, well, aw­ful. It was only when you read fur­ther that it be­came clear it was ac­tu­ally re­fer­ring to the Bee­tles that didn’t make it to show­rooms be­cause even a blem­ished chrome strip on the glove­box would prompt Kurt Kroner, one of Volk­swa­gen’s 3389 qual­ity con­trol in­spec­tors, to pull it off the pro­duc­tion line. It ended with the sen­tence, ‘ We pluck the lemons, you get the plums’.

DDB oc­ca­sion­ally tapped into the in­ter­na­tional zeit­geist. Its re­sponse to the 1969 moon land­ing was to show Apollo 11’s com­mand mod­ule with the words ‘It’s ugly, but it gets you there’. Sim­ple, but bril­liant.

Thanks in no small mea­sure to DDB, Volk­swa­gen sold Bee­tles by the mil­lion through­out the 1960s. Even­tu­ally, it also won the ac­count for the coun­try that in­vented self­dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour – Great Bri­tain. If DDB could make irony work in the USA, imagine what it could do in a coun­try that ac­tu­ally un­der­stood the con­cept. Granted, it came to the Bri­tish game rather late, at the end of the 1960s, but it still made quite an im­pact, al­beit now with an English ac­cent. Per­haps the equiv­a­lent of the Apollo 11 ef­fort was one with the um, some­what dis­tinc­tivelook­ing co­me­dian, Marty Feld­man. ‘If he can make it, so can Volk­swa­gen’ ran the head­ing. That sort of thing would prob­a­bly cre­ate an on­line out­cry now. Back then, it just cre­ated new sales. When the Bee­tle was with­drawn from Bri­tain in 1978, Volk­swa­gen (GB) ran an ad show­ing the car dis­ap­pear­ing into the dis­tance, with the VW logo un­der­neath shed­ding a tear. The cap­tion read ‘Go­ing, go­ing…’ and the words paid tribute to 19 mil­lion sales. ‘Chin up, though. Know­ing how long Bee­tles last, it’ll be a long time be­fore you’ve seen the last of them.’ Prophetic words in­deed. To­day, DDB still ad­ver­tises Volk­swa­gens. For an agency that thought small, it pro­duced some very big re­sults.

stuff­from 1960. you get the plums.’ Price­less ‘We pluck the lemons, BEE­TLE

Clever and hu­mourous ad­ver­tis­ing like this was to­tally at odds with what most other car firms were do­ing.

Above: We’re al­most sur­prised that there wasn’t a ref­er­ence to be­ing bug-eyed here. We also as­sume Mr Feld­man was happy to ap­prove this.

Above right: This ad, from 1961, got swarms of cus­tomers crowd­ing into deal­er­ships, just to see what they were miss­ing.

Right: A rare ex­cur­sion into colour for this UK ad­vert; all the bet­ter to see how well learner driv­ers could crum­ple eas­ily re­place­able wings.

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