Watershed VW campaign Turns 50

You say you want a revolution? Think small.

That’s what Volkswagen’s ad agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, did 50 years ago in launching a counter-intuitive campaign that poked fun at itself to sell the tiny Beetle. The “Think Small” and “Lemon” ads of 1959 launched a watershed campaign that proved William Bernbach’s “creative revolution” manifesto: “Good taste, good art (and) good writing can be good selling.”

Gone was the flamboyance ’50s consumers had come to expect from Detroit’s ads. Instead, in “Think Small,” the car was pushed to the corner and the black-and-white page was more white than black. And the copy was jarring in its honesty, ironically poking fun at its own peculiarities.

“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.” (Click here for a full-size image of the ad)

The “Think Small” ad, in fact, encouraged readers to think big, or at least beyond the typical heavy-handed approach of the ‘50s era. As “Ad Age” noted when it named the campaign No. 1 in the “Top 100 Advertising Campaigns of the Century,” DDB was able to tout the car as the antidote to conspicuous consumption.” But its tongue-in-cheek tone actually set the car apart as a product for those who “fancied themselves … invulnerable to the tacky blandishments of the hidden persuaders.”

“Lemon” pushed the boundaries further, specifically calling out problems with a specific car to highlight the company’s strict standards.

“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.” (Click here for a full-size image of the ad)

And the ads worked. The witty copy and layout attracted the younger, more sophisticated consumers that are still associated with the car today – no small feat considering the tiny car was produced in Germany at a plant built by the Nazis, and WWII had only ended 15 years prior. In 1949, only two units were sold in the U.S. in VW’s first year. In 1960, they moved 185,000 – 23 percent more than the year before. By 1972, Volkswagen could claim the world production record for the most-produced, single make of car in history. By 1973, total production was more than 16 million.

DDB continued its trend of ironic ads for VW throughout the ‘60s. In 1969 the agency brought the same ideas to TV with its “Funeral” spot, touching the once-taboo theme of death to emphasize the “importance of a dollar.” The voice of the deceased leaves next to nothing to his wife and sons who were wasteful with money.

“But to Harold,” the dead man concludes, “who oftimes said, ‘A penny saved is a penny earned – and it sure pays to own a Volkswagen’ – I leave my entire fortune.”


The creative revolution launched at DDB trickled down Madison Avenue and changed the ad industry forever. Counter culture had finally breached the boardroom, and creativity was allowed to shine. DDB also pioneered the concept that art directors and copywriters should work together, a standard practice ever since.

Those early print ads of 1959 stand up today and still look at home in magazines and newspapers. In fact, VW repurposed the “Think Small” ad in Germany on its 50th anniversary to promote its car parts Web site. There were only minor edits – a tire was gone, and an asterisk added – but the tone and copy remained the same. (Click here for a full-size image of the ad)

And it still works.

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