45 Years Ago, An Ad Campaign Made the Beetle the World’s Most Popular Car

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It’s hard to think of a time when the Volkswagen Beetle didn’t exist, but prior to 1949, nobody had ever seen one here. And if Doyle Dane Bernbach hadn’t gotten involved in 1960, it might have been one of hundreds of odd, European imports following World War II, rather than the runaway sales success it became. Here’s how an ad agency, with an $800,000 budget, changed automotive and advertising history.

The first Beetles arrived in the United States in 1950, thanks to legendary Manhattan distributor Max Hoffman. His first order consisted of 330 cars, sold mostly by tacking a few VWs onto orders for desirable Porsche and Mercedes-Benz models that Hoffman successfully sold to dealerships.

Sales were still slow through 1954, despite improvements including a syncromesh three-speed transmission, and continuously more engine displacement. By 1955, Volkswagen sold its millionth Beetle, but only managed to sell 9,000 here in the United States. To put that into perspective, between 1950 and 1953, MG managed to sell 23,488 MG TDs.

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There was a lot working against the Beetle. It was absurdly small in comparison to 1950s American cars; it was plain, homely and slow; and in 1955, less than a decade after hostilities ended in Europe, anti-German sentiment was at a high pitch.

Then along came Doyle Dane Bernbach.

The ad agency was founded by William Bernbach, Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane in 1949. Its greatest success was pitching clients with small budgets, and delivering smart, catchy, soft-sell campaigns, rather than the in-your-face advertising that most agencies were producing. For example, it produced a series of ads for Levy’s rye bread, featuring sandwich eaters of every ethnic group imaginable, with a tagline written by DDB copywriter Judy Protas, “You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.”

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Helmut Krone was DDB’s art director, hired in 1954. He was an early Volkswagen customer, years before DDB ever pitched Volkswagen for its business. Helmut Krone, William Bernbach and copywriter Julian Koenig were all fans of the car, and their impression led them to actively pursue VW as a client.

VW’s headquarters was in Germany, but it had just opened its Volkswagen of America sales arm in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey in 1955. It was up against an American automotive juggernaut. In 1955, America bought more than 8 million cars, the vast majority of those produced by Ford, GM and Chrysler.

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Think about how those cars were advertised: Big, splashy, full-color illustrations, packed with superlatives.

A typical 1955 “Motoramic” Chevrolet advertisement shouted “NEW LOOK! NEW LIFE! NEW EVERYTHING!”, boasting two new six-cylinder engines, with all-new transmissions, festive colors and generous appointments.

Volkswagen had none of that, and creative director Helmut Krone saw it as an advantage. From the beginning, DDB’s “Think Small” advertising campaign used stark, unretouched, black and white photographs of dark-colored Beetles. The copy — written by Julian Koenig — focused on particular facets of the car.

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The ads acted almost like Burma Shave signs did on the road: Each one stood on its own, highlighting one of the car’s advantages, and they were so cleverly written and art-directed that they made readers look out for the next one.

Even more importantly, the ads were almost exclusively self-depricating, and focused as much on the intelligence, frugality and spirit of the Beetle’s owners as they did on the car itself.

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The original ads began running in 1960, and were the motivating force for Volkswagen’s success. The campaign itself was so successful that 55 years later, it was a minor story arc in the AMC drama Mad Men:

By February 17, 1972, Beetle No. 15,007,034 rolled off the assembly line, surpassing the Ford Model T as the single most successful automobile in history. In the end, Volkswagen built 21,529,464 Beetles, making it the most produced car ever.

See the Gallery of original DDB Volkswagen ads below:

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.