Today we remember and make a small tribute to one of the masterpieces of advertising and content design of the twentieth century. With it, new creative paths were opened within the traditional marketing and advertising industry. This icon of culture and design has transcended its concept, its atmosphere, and even its context after more than 50 years of its release on the market.
One of the most famous advertising campaigns in history began showing the product with a concept that would seem negative. We are talking about the one that was used to launch one of the best known cars of all times: the Volkswagen Sedan or Beettle. In charge of the campaign at the time was a small advertising agency, DDB.
The advertising of a twentieth century milestone: Volkswagen
The beginning of everything: Bernbach
“The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”
Twentieth century, years after the World War II, the German car company Volkswagen reaches the American market. A new beginning in a market where German car design was not very attractive for the standards of comfort and luxury that American society expected from a vehicle. A major challenge for the company compared to its competitors.
But what allowed these cars to achieve a boom in sales on the American market was the empathy, taste, and attractive design that the advertising campaign of the DDB agency provided, and helped differentiate Volkswagen from the others.
A campaign that advocated for a change that people were not used to seeing and reading in magazines and pamphlets. As it was common in the advertising of the 1950s, it was much more informative, with much text, and tried to explain all the features and benefits of the product. Think Small was the campaign with which they introduced the Beetle or “Vocho” to the United States, and it was designed by Helmut Krone and Julian Koenig, from the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency (DDB).
The campaign was launched in 1959 with an ad that shows a large white space and the silhouette of a small Vocho centered on the left. Below the name of the “Think Small” ad; followed by the text: “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 fact, some people who drive our little flivver don’t even think 32 miles to the gallon is going any great guns. Or using five pints oil instead of five quarts. Our never needing anti-freeze. Or racking up 40,000 miles on a set of tires. That’s because 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. Or pay a small repair bill. Or trade in your old VW for a new one. Think it over.”
An innovative move for what the world of advertising was around those times: minimalism. The use in the first place of real photos of the vehicle in black and white, a simple text, a white background, everything simplified. Added to that there was a place of prevalence for the Volkswagen logo, and different texts like; “Lemon,” “Think Small,” “It isn’t so,” “And if you run out of gas, it’s easy to push,” and “The Volkswagen Theory of Evolution,” among many other phrases. And finally distributed copies of the ad in magazines and newspapers that informed and delighted the consumer with their curious and funny phrases.
Dave Saunders, in his book 20th Century Advertising, describes these marketing strategies with the following words: “It was the opposite of aspirational advertising, the antithesis of the ‘American dream.’ VW’s ads were of overwhelming honesty; with provocative thoughts, which treated the reader as an intelligent friend.”
The wordplay of “think small” turned into the opposite, the advertisement itself turned into something big, gigantic. With advertising as the centerpiece of their presentation, VW’s unique model grew to become a cultural icon, because the message that was transmitted was not to sell a product, but instead it was all the things that the owner of a Beetle would get from the brand and the product. VW became a family and lovable car for most consumers.
The creativity of DDB and the fame of the Beetle were a good combination. Such a revolutionary perspective that would end up permanently changing the philosophy of advertising discipline throughout the world. “Think Small” is one of the best marketing strategies ever.
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