Auf Wiedersehen, Beetle: a history of the VW icon in advertising
Volkswagen has today (14 September) announced the discontinuation of the Beetle, the model that found a place in culture and spawned an array of unforgettable advertising campaigns.
The German manufacturer confirmed the last Beetle will drive out of its plant in Mexico in July 2019 after it produces a line of ‘celebration models’.
“The Beetle is one of those rare things; a product that escapes the gravity of its category to become a true cultural icon,” said Adam&Eve/DDB’s chief strategy officer Alex Hesz, who worked on the VW account. “It belongs to those thousands of people who bought it at its peak, the early to mid 60s, particularly in the United States. They are the ‘inventors’ of the modern Beetle, far more so than the pre-war Germans who sketched the now-familiar shape and put the production line together.
“That’s why the Beetle isn’t an icon of 1930s Germany, but an icon of 1960s America. The Beetle is proof that no brand, no business, can decide what their products are or aren’t; only consumers have the power to decide that.”
This year saw the auto brand celebrate 20 year of the New Beetle car, which was advertised in the 90s under evocative and nostalgic taglines such as: ‘If you sold your soul in the 80s, here’s your chance to buy it back’.
The work was a return to form not only for the car (which had fallen in and out of production – and fashion – since the 50s) but for its advertising. Ned Doyle, Maxwell Dane and William ‘Bill’ Bernbach’s Manhattan shop DDB took on the job of marketing the Nazi-era model in the 1950s and revolutionised advertising with its simple strategy: monochrome photograph print ads, minimal imagery and witty, honest, long-form copy.
“I’m just saying we could be funny, like those Volkswagen guys,” says the art director Sal Romano in Mad Men.
“You know they did one last year .... remember ‘Think Small’?” retorts Harry Crane. “It was a half-page ad on a full page buy, you could barely see the product!”
‘Lemon’ and ‘Think Small’ defined DDB’s mid-century legacy and went on to shape the language of the Beetle for years to come.
‘Think Small’ was the work of art director Helmut Krone and copywriter Julian Koenig. Released 1959 – when advertising was barely out of the womb – the ad was nevertheless named as the greatest campaign of the 20th century. It twists the Beetle’s petite size on its head: ‘Once you get used to some of our economies, you don’t even think about them any more. Except when you squeeze into a small parking spot. Or renew your small insurance.’
‘Lemon’ was one of very few ads to infiltrate the lexicon: the citrus fruit is now shorthand for a new vehicle with manufacturing defects. The simplicity of the metaphor is enshrined in the Bernbach quote: “Logic and over-analysis can immobilise and sterilise an idea. It’s like love — the more you analyse it, the faster it disappears.”
‘Nobody’s Perfect’ captured VW’s self-awareness and humility – qualities that DDB pushed to the limit as consumerism gathered pace. But by employing the language of authority, phrases such as ‘it’s a mistake to regard the Volkswagen as indestructible’ built trust and made car servicing seem less like a chore and more like a prized responsibility.
‘Funeral’ took the dry humour of VW’s print ads and translated it to the screen. In the spot, a grieving nephew is rewarded the modest sum of $100bn simply for enjoying the economies of a Volkswagen.
“It was advertising like this that went on to inspire a new wave of British creativity,” said the IPA's director-general Paul Bainsfair, who listed the TVC in his top five ads of all time.
‘We Do Our Thing, You Do Yours’ riffed on the freewheelin’, free lovin’ lifestyle of Beetle’s American consumer base during the early 70s. The ad conveyed how the car could move with the times while ‘steering clear of the idiocy of annual model changes’.
It was Boston’s Arnold Communications that launched the New Beetle in 1998, a campaign that the New York Times estimated to be worth $35m. The refreshed design was positioned under numerous taglines including 'Hug it? Drive it? Hug it? Drive it?’ and ‘Lime’ (a hat-tip to ‘Lemon’), but ‘More Power Less Flower’ was arguably the most memorable. The creative was very much of its time, complete with electronic soundtracks and experimental CGI effects.
"The look of the old work didn't flavour the new,'' Arnold’s chief creative officer, Ron Lawner, said at the time. "It really comes from the car. Back then, Doyle Dane Bernbach looked at the Beetle and saw a simple, likable, honest car; we looked at the car now and saw the same thing."
Eyebrows were raised when VW created this ad for the Indian market. ‘Marriage Does Come with its Rewards’ referenced the tradition of a bridal dowry – a custom that has come under much scrutiny for its outmoded representation of marriage. The copy read ‘It’s the perfect gift this wedding season’.
The playful side of the Beetle was communicated to a Chinese audience by DDB Guoan in 'Senior Rebels'. This spot features a motley crew of OAPs enjoying teenage pursuits such as surfing, graffiti and stealing supermarket trolleys before enviously eyeing a young couple stepping into a Beetle. The endline read: ‘Fun. Don’t Leave It Too Late’.
The 2013 Beetle Cabriolet was introduced with the inspired tagline ‘Father and Sun’. The print layout paid homage to DDB’s long-form copy style, although it eschewed black and white to evoke the sunny climes of the US’s western states.
Last year’s six-minute Danish spot, ‘Generationer’, side-stepped the witty humour of the Beetle to tap into the raw emotion sparked by long car journeys. It showcased the high-highs and the many lows exhibited in a tense father-son road trip behind the wheel of a battered old Beetle, covering the full spectrum of the human experience.
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