I recreated Volkswagen’s iconic 1960s ad campaign using diecast
“We pluck the lemons; you get the plums.”
A few months ago while I waited for my car to be serviced at my local Volkswagen dealership, I stumbled upon this vintage ad tucked away in a stairwell. The one word headline with a period at the end stopped me in my tracks and forced me to read. “Volkswagen is calling their iconic bug a lemon?”, I thought to myself. Little did I know that this black and white poster was part of a print ad campaign that turned the world of advertising on it’s head.
The first use of the word “Lemon” to describe a poor quality product
It was the tail-end of the 1950s - an era of big, flashy, fast American cars that resembled rockets and spaceships. And the colorful automobile ads of the day reflected that very American dream. So, Volkswagen had a big problem - how were they going to sell a small, ugly, foreign car, especially one that was designed by Ferdinand Porsche under strict guidelines from Adolf Hitler himself to post-WWII Americans that were obsessed with their status symbols on wheels from Detroit?
“Think small.” The 1959 ad that started it all
In steps Bill Bernbach from the ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) - a mad man from the ‘Mad Men’ era. Through sheer simplicity, brutal honesty and some self-deprecating humor he turned the “people’s car” into an everlasting piece of Americana. Beginning with the “Think small” ad in 1959 - the little black dot in a sea of white forces you to focus on the car and appreciate its beauty and simplicity; rather than think of it as an ugly German import.
So here is the “Think small” ad I recreated using my 1956 VW Beetle from M2 Machines:
Featuring the 1956 VW Beetle Deluxe USA Model from M2 Machines
Turns out Volkswagen ran this campaign in black and white because they couldn’t afford to print in color but I wanted showcase my M2 casting in all its two-toned glory.
However my M2 casting is definitely not a lemon
Now imagine seeing these ads in an era of beautiful space-age designs where colorful automobile ads doubled as bold and extravagant lifestyle ads. Did they just insult their own product? You are forced to stop and read - a trick that seemed to have worked on me when I saw it for the first time some 60 odd years since the ad was published.
Disclaimer: not a fish!
The brutal honesty of these ads, with constant reminders of the VW’s reliability and longevity and their unparalleled attention to quality were enough to convince the masses that slow and ugly was not a bad thing, and that it is exactly what the average Joe needed instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses with a Chevy or Caddy with endless tailfins and excess chrome.
1962 - the year they added a gas gauge
These ads from the late 50s and early 60s were an instant hit with the American public, and is often hailed as one of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time. So iconic that DDB still holds the VW account and this ad format (a picture, a headline with a period and a few columns of text) is still quintessentially Volkswagen - the VW logo is almost not needed. Just take a look at the print ads for the VW I.D. Buzz from recent years.