“Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.” The man who said this quote is Bill Bernbach, one of the three founders of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB). You may not know him but you certainly know his work.
Doyle Dane Bernbach, one the most legendary advertising agencies in history, created what is considered to be the most effective and successful advertising campaign the western world has ever seen: 1959’s “Think Small” Volkswagen advertisements. DDB essentially took a German car originally created for Adolph Hitler (the Volkswagen Beetle) and sold it to post-war Americans through radically styled advertisements. The advertisements were brilliantly written and focused on the benefits of its compact size and affordability instead of trying to sell it to people as a “luxurious, spacious vehicle” like DDB’s predecessors had attempted before. The effect of these advertisements are the sole reason for why the Volkswagen Beetle is still to this day an American (and worldwide) cultural icon.
Anybody who was alive back in the 60’s and 70’s surely remembers the classic VW print and television ads. How could you not? Imagine flipping through a magazine full of articles and cluttered advertisements. And then suddenly, you turn the page and see a near-blank page with a tiny picture of a car, some copy at the bottom, and two words commanding you to “Think Small.” It shows the product, yes. But not very clearly and certainly not in any conventionally pleasing way. In fact, the ad at first seems to be making fun of the product.
Yet it draws you in. Why is someone trying to sell you a tiny car?? And then it seems to downplay the car when you read the body copy:
“Our little car isn’t so much of a novelty anymore. 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.”
But here’s where you realize you’ve been sucked into a great ad:
“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 of oil instead of five quarts. Or 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 anymore. 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.”
Bill Bernbach, the director of this campaign, used minimalism and the negative viewpoints American society always had on the VW Beetle as selling points to the very people who neglected to buy it in the 1950’s! He was basically saying, “Yeah ok, so it’s small and so what if it’s not the fastest? Let’s capitalize on the luxuries that come with a small car: efficient gas usage and mileage, cheap repairs, compact size for parking, etc.” Obviously there were millions and millions of people who this spoke to, whether it be a poor college kid or a wealthy businessman living in New York City.
Even on a visual level the advertisements were brilliant: taking the potent contrast of empty space situated next to anything else you could image in a magazine caused it to immediately pop from the page. You instantly see the car and the headline even if you were merely passing through to get to the end of an article. The witty, charming, and intelligent approach was cohesively integrated into their television ads (example 1and example 2) and the rest of their campaign.
And for once a major company was treating their customers as if they had a brain and a pulse; as if they were smart enough to “get it” and old enough to be talked to like they were adults. DDB knew it was insulting to their customers to sell them a small car and say it was as luxurious as a Cadillac. So why bother when there were dozens of selling points the VW Beetle had that other cars lacked?
Bill Bernbach certainly used the “notes not being played” to make a loud noise. It was such a profound Bang! that VW still maintains a similar format to many of their print ads today. Obviously his use of good design was thoroughly successful. Bill Bernbach and DDB helped separate Volkswagen from their competitors and help make their products timeless world renowned icons.
If you’re interested in some more VW Beetle ads from back in the day, you can click here or simply google “old vw ads”. Enjoy!