ravi uncle had a beetle. not the insect, the car. i must have been seven at the time, ravi uncle was my maternal uncle’s friend, a very trendy man in his early twenties, who dared to wear bright pink khadi guru kurtas back in the sixties, who had this stylish air and yeah, who had this really cute car.
those days, you didn’t get “foreign” cars in india, only some people who could afford it, imported them. i remember seeing dodge, chevrolet, plymouth, mercedes, all big cars, but the beetle was small and dumpy, for the want of a better word. my uncle would show us how the engine was not in the front but behind. there were only two doors and what fun it used to be to try and get into the back seat. most of all that shape, always gave me a happy feeling. i knew nothing about cars and yet, even then i knew this was a different car. it had attitude. it stood apart. maybe some day i’d have one?
“however much we would like advertising to be a science-because life would be simpler that way-the fact is that it is not. it is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formularization, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation; where what was effective one day, for that very reason, will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality.” bill bernbach
i was thinking about my first acquaintance with the volkswagen beetle while looking at these ads here. for almost certainly a couple of them had something to do with ravi uncle buying the beetle at all. how would a young man in india hear of this car and know that though it hadn’t the lines and style of the usual imported cars, it was the car to have?
maybe he had seen the “think small” campaign that broke in 1959 in the u.s., when ddb or doyle dane bernbach, an agency that would change the way people looked at advertising was changing the way americans would look at cars. bill bernbach, a man i wish i’d had the chance to work for, looked at advertising in a way no one had before. he also realised the power of this medium. but that’s another story, maybe some other day.
at that point, his agency had the task of getting americans – who liked their cars large and powerful and fancy – interested in a tiny, unostentatious car that was made in germany in a plant built by the nazis, hitler being very keen on developing a people’s car… volks…wagen.
bill bernbach was jewish incidentally and so were most of the people who developed the smart and totally audacious campaign that would indeed make the odd little car into one of the best selling brands ever; its shape and personality much talked about and owning it considered a sign of taste, of being cool… not one of, oh the poor chap couldn’t afford something better.
and so came about the “think small” ad and others, created by art director helmut krone and copywriter julian koenig. car ads unlike any around… they were witty, touched with self deprecating humour at times, with neat precise, non bombastic copy, and the most spare, lean layouts.
detroit car ads glamourised the product. beautiful pictures, copy talking up the car, good looking models, lifestyle orientation. glossiness all around.
what no one possibly realised was that the ads were all similar. nothing stood out. and that perhaps was the insight that helped think up the volkswagen campaign. here was a car that was nothing like the rest, so its campaign would be like nothing like the rest’s.
big car fascination?
think small, please. and let’s give you a tiny shot of the beetle there in the corner in helmut krone’s super uncluttered layout. koenig’s beautiful lucid copy begins, “our little car isn’t so much of a novelty any more. a couple of dozen college kids don’t try to squeeze inside it. the guy at the gas station doesn’t ask where the gas goes. nobody even stares at our shape.” in just a few words it’s clear the beetle is different and feeling pretty good about it. far away in the corner sat the car. really? i am guffawing thinking of the trouble ddb must have had selling this ad to the client. imaginary client comments: it’s my product, dammit… make it big, make it prominent… make it the HERO.
another ad had a one word headline.
copy said… “this volkswagen missed the boat. the chrome strip on the glove compartment is blemished and must be replaced. chances are you wouldn’t have noticed it; inspector kurt kroner did.” it was a smart, some will say creative, way of pointing to the high and strict standards maintained by the company.
the ads never bothered to layer on glamour. instead, the car stood there with a simple, matter of fact air. sometimes even with a dent, or a part taken out. unthinkable really, got to say the client too was very keen and receptive. much much much later did other well known auto makers show their cars in any state other than pristine.
i love the volkswagen ads created by ddb those days. there are several. and you can see some here while the creators of the campaign speak about the the campaign. to me the vw campaign is always an example of bill bernbach’s creative genius and ken. he was the sort of creative director who knew how to bring out the best in his creative team. and when julian koenig mentioned they managed to establish a sort of “reverse chic” for the beetle, i thought, that’s it… that’s the word.
ravi uncle must have vibed with that precisely.
the vw beetle ads attracted younger, more sophisticated consumers instantly and till date it remains one of the company’s best selling cars, though the original shape has been modified over time. yet its personality remains jaunty and that chic thing is still there.
in 1969, ddb made a commercial called “the funeral” where they showed, yes… a funeral… to advertise the economic advantage of the car. brilliantly well written and directed, it’s a delightful commercial or tvc as we called them. do watch, i hope you enjoy it. art director, designer: roy grace; copywriter: john noble; director: howard zieff.
of course, i am not the first, nor will i be the last, to write about and applaud vw advertising. “think small” is one of the most awarded campaigns in the history of advertising, some even believe it’s the best ad campaign of the twentieth century. but i thought if i want to write about ads, this would be the best place to start. because whenever i think advertising i…
adiction is all about the ads and commercials we love and which mean something to us. we live in a world wrapped in media, ads abound, all around, wherever we are… a part of us practically. they form a layer of imagery and ideas that’s embedded in our environment. why not chat about them then? reminisce, review, rant, let’s ad it.
pictures and tvc credit: uploaders/copyright holders