Alfredo Marcantonio (and others): Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads?

The Volkswagen advertising campaign of the ’60s and ‘70s has been acknowledged as one of the greatest and most influential ever created; it was acclaimed as “the campaign of the century” in the Millennium editions of Time Magazine and the US ad industry bible, Advertising Age. The somewhat clumsily titled Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? is a revised edition of a fantastic hardback book about the campaign, and it goes a long way in explaining how and why the advertising was so successful, as well as putting the promotion in historical context.

Out of print for some time, the first edition of this book was becoming perilously expensive on the collector’s market, but the publishers have wisely stepped in to produce this new edition in a larger format, with more ads in colour, and expanded to include further detail about the campaign as well as a new section on billboards and dealer posters.

A re-print may be of surprise to some, in that it could be assumed that the subject matter would appeal only to a relatively restricted audience: those in the advertising industry and/or owners of classic VWs. However, you don’t have to own a Beetle to wear the t-shirt, and the engaging advertising contained in the book, with over 450 reproductions of original advertisements should appeal to a wide demographic, just like “the people’s car” itself.


The book begins with a brief history of the iconic Volkswagen Beetle (including the design by Porsche and development by Hitler), followed by an account of the arrival of the Beetle in the US after the Second World War. The car’s early owners became its best salesman, and despite little advertising, US sales increased from just 2,000 in 1953 to over 150,000 in 1958, as VW established a network of dealers across the States.

The small and compact European Beetle was a real threat to the larger gas-guzzling monsters America was producing, so Detroit launched its own compacts to compete. This had some effect as imported car sales plummeted, but incredibly VW sales remained unaffected, partly due to the strength of its advertising campaign run by US ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB); dealers often found that customers arrived in showrooms with the headline of the latest DDB ad on their lips.

The DDB-VW partnership proved to be significant in starting what has been termed “The Creative Revolution”, a period of intense and dramatic change that swept along New York’s Madison Avenue during the late ’50s and recently celebrated in the television series, Mad Men. Of course the revolution was also a result of television, blue jeans and the rise of young consumers with money in their pockets.

Pre-revolution, the methods behind US advertising were research, think-tanks, and brainstorming sessions; advertising tried to mean all things to all people, so that it ended up meaning nothing to anyone, except the agency and the client. Car advertising was frequently air-brushed or illustrative, with an admiring female looking on at a typically debonair, male driver.

As the new kid on the block, DDB swam against the tide to pioneer creative advertising with the help of an unusually open hiring policy, so that “ethnic” employees from different backgrounds and countries were recruited. Unlike other agencies, DDB refused to provide potential clients with speculative creative work, and put copywriters and art directors together in the same space instead of on different floors.

On behalf of Volkswagen, Carl Hahn met with over 400 American admen before settling with DDB, which was given six unique selling points about the VW to advertise: 1. it was air-cooled; 2. the engine was in the back; 3. the look of the car did not change every year; 4. it was economic; 5. spare parts were easily available; and 6. there were more inspectors in the factory (meaning you were unlikely to end up with a dud). Copywriter Julian Koenig and art director Helmut Krone took these ideas and riffed on them like re-occurring jazz motifs to produce witty and inventive advertising, which still looks original 50 years on. Starting out with the VW Beetle, they then moved on to the Van, Bus and Camper and finally the VW Fastback and Squareback vehicles.

The copy talked to the reader as though he were a close friend, not “some distant moron”; it was self-depreciating instead of self-congratulatory, admitting, for example, that the Beetle was no oil-paining. It asked the reader questions (hence the title of the book) and was provocative, with simple and clean artwork, using a sans serif typeface, echoing VW precision engineering and the modernist Bauhaus movement that had swept through Germany in the ‘20s and ‘30s. This approach not only sold Volkswagens, but also became a conversation piece for baby-boomers due to bold tag-lines such as: “One of the nice things about owning it is selling it” and “ugly is only skin-deep”. This approach made the brand controversial and stick in the public’s collective mind.

The book re-produces the adverts in excellent quality and contains some interesting insights from the people who created them. Art director Helmut Krohne was concerned about the Nazi denotations for the car, and although he’d owned a Beetle himself, admits he asked himself whether he’d done something wrong to merit now having to advertise them. After three of the ads had been published, he realised everyone was talking about the campaign, and despite thinking the Beetle had no future, he remained instrumental in putting these incredible and ground-breaking adverts together. Perhaps this explains the mordant and dry humour which made the work so distinctive, although interestingly it was his fellow copy-writer, Rita Seldon, who came up with the “lemon” tag for one of the most famous VW adverts.

Quirky, stylish, appealing, transcending social class, these were indeed clever adverts, and they well merit this beautiful book on their own, even if some had doubts as to whether the VW itself was beautiful enough for the aesthetically-minded American. But it turned out that one could learn to love that snub-nosed little rebel, and eventually even appreciate that distinctive “burling whir” sound of an air-cooled engine going full throttle down an American highway.

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Publisher: Merrell
Authors: Alfredo Marcantonio, David Abbott, John O’Driscoll
Publication date: SEP 2014

FIRST PUBLISHED POPMATTERS 12 NOV 2014