Humor is hallmark of VW ads
By Laura Clark Geist
Automotive News / October 17, 2005
"Think small" shocked the advertising world.
In 1959, Volkswagen used two words -- "Think small" -- to advertise its Beetle.
That simple print ad by Doyle, Dane, Bernbach of New York sent shock waves throughout the bland, cookie-cutter world of 1950s advertising. The impact was startling, ushering in a creative revolution that changed the way everything from cars to toothpaste was marketed.
In the 1950s, full-color ads from Detroit automakers showed big, powerful cars against so-called beauty-shot backgrounds. The advertising copy was long, using words of adulation.
By contrast, VW's "Think small" ad was black and white. It showed a lonely-looking Beetle against a stark background. The copy used irony and a self-deprecating sense of humor.
Respecting the audience
"It was one of the first advertising campaigns to treat audiences like they had some intelligence. It was tongue-in-cheek and unexpected," says Linda Scott, associate professor of advertising, art and design at University of Illinois.
Before VW, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach catered primarily to local clients such as Ohrbach's department store.
William Bernbach, the creative chief of the agency, studied how consumers felt about products. Then he would decide how best to communicate those ideas in various media to gain the consumer's support.
Bernbach's ads often made fun of VW's unconventional designs and personality. Ads with headlines such as "Lemon," "Why won't your wife let you buy this car?" and "It's ugly but it gets you there" were typical of VW's ironic humor.
Connecting with people
Stephen Fox, author of The Mirror Makers, a book about the history of U.S. advertising, says the humor of the ads was rooted in Jewish culture.
"It was a sign of the times that they did not have to 'white-bread' it down and could speak in a recognizable ethnic way and still connect with the people at large out there," says Fox.
In 1963, VW did what no other importer had done in the United States: sell more than a quarter-million units. In1963 it sold 277,008 vehicles.
Mike Bernacchi, who teaches marketing at University of Detroit Mercy, says VW capitalized on the offbeat nature of its products.
"Volkswagen was able to be more unique than any other advertiser because their products were unique. They put a smile on your face," says Bernacchi, a longtime observer of automotive marketing.
"Volkswagen never attempted to be for everybody, because they know who they are and can zero in on it in a very honest and humorous way."
After Doyle, Dane, Bernbach showed the world its creative strength through Volkswagen, the agency grew dramatically.
Bernbach died in 1982. Four years later the agency merged with Needham Harper & Steers of Chicago to become DDB Needham Worldwide, part of the gigantic Omnicom Group.
DDB Needham held the VW account until 1992, but experts agree that the creativity of VW ads began to wane in the late 1980s. The ads became bland and uninspiring, and Volkswagen's trademark humor was absent.
In 1988, VW tried to connect its German heritage and engineering strength with ads showing VW cars zipping past engineers in white lab coats on a test track. But the campaign failed to connect with consumers.
In 1990 the agency followed with a campaign called "Fahrvergnugen" (German for driving pleasure), featuring a simple stick figure.
Yet VW's U.S. sales were tanking and the quality of cars being produced by its plant in Mexico was abysmal. By 1993, sales hit a low of 62,061 -- from a peak of 569,182 in 1970 -- and there was talk in Germany of a retreat from the United States.
"That was the turning point," recalls Karen Marderosian, director of marketing for Volkswagen of America.
DDB Needham spinoff
Berlin Cameron Doyle held the account for 16 months, until it was fired in December 1994 and the account was put up for review.
The automaker hired Boston ad agency Arnold Fortuna Lawner & Cabot, which later became Arnold Worldwide, the following March.
Arnold was a rapidly expanding shop whose clients included the regional McDonald's business.
The new agency was just what VW needed. In July 1995, Arnold launched the memorable "Drivers Wanted" campaign, returning to VW's fun-to-drive German heritage. Since there were no new products for 1996, VW developed cross-branded promotions with Trek mountain bikes and K2 skis. The campaign is credited with helping sales increase to 135,907 in 1996.
Arnold followed in 1997 with a string of clever, funky TV commercials targeted at Generation X consumers.
The commercials laid the brand foundation for a slew of successful products. A redesigned, larger Passat sedan arrived in the fall of 1997. In 1998, VW introduced the New Beetle with such imaginative ads as "Less Flower, More Power," a nod to VW's 1960s U.S. heyday. Critics say the New Beetle ads were as good the original Bernbach campaign.
The redesigned Jetta and Golf arrived in 1999. By then, VW marketers claimed that the brand had the youngest demographics in the industry with the average buyer age of 33. And sales climbed.
Trouble in 2002
But in 2002, U.S. sales began to slip again. The automaker's core products had aged, and new, upscale products such as the Phaeton had left consumers confused about the brand.
That combination hurt, admits Marderosian.
"We didn't have the product strength, and the brand was sort of feeling its way at the same time," she says. "I do think that the advertising had become watered down mainly by sort of what was going on with the brand overall."
VW told Arnold in September that it was being pulled off the account, effective Dec. 5. Bypassing a formal review, VW gave the business to Crispin Porter + Bogusky, of Miami. Crispin had held the BMW's Mini advertising account.
While Mini spent only about $22 million on U.S. advertising last year, compared with the VW brand's $338 million, Mini's unconventional campaigns are highly respected in the ad world.
Mini's campaigns are as innovative as the original Beetle campaign, says Bruce Vanden Bergh, who teaches advertising at Michigan State University.
So what should Crispin do?
Says Vanden Bergh, "Reinject the brand with its heritage while making it really relevant to the younger buyer."
It's a challenge that will require some big thinking.
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