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
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.