Once upon a time, back when I had hair and pretensions to coolness, I was the owner of a classic car.

I know, I know. But she was a beauty. A Volkswagen Karmann Beetle, one previous careful owner, immaculate British Racing Green paintwork, and a soft top that took about 20 minutes to close.

Boy, was that soft top flammable.

I was thinking of that car and her ignominious end only the other day, when I was sent a link to a new short movie on Vimeo called “Remember those great Volkswagen ads?”. I urge you to go and watch it. Dave Trott

The video brings together a number of heroes of mine from the golden age of British advertising in the 1980s – Hegarty, Parker and Dave Trott (right) among them – and intercuts their comments with archive footage from the 1960’s New York originators of the ads. Who, lest it be forgotten, had been given the task of selling “a Nazi car to a Jewish town”.

Leader of the Agency in question, DDB, was one Bill Bernbach, also Jewish, and arguably the founding father of modern advertising. Although he never wrote a book – never become an “advertising guru”, thank goodness, let alone a “marketing ninja” – many of his pearls of wisdom were collected, and continue to inform those in the know to this day.

One such aphorism seems particularly relevant to our times. “To succeed, an ad (or a person or a product for that matter) must establish its own unique personality, or it will never be noticed.”

Ah yes, personality. I once sat though an interminable lecture at the Brighton SEO conference where a man with a beard, who was very possibly the dullest man in the world, told me I had to be “engaging”, and have meaningful “conversations” with my customers, if I wanted people to read my “content”. Well, duh.

Sadly the poor chap was so bereft of personality himself that I cannot remember either his organisation or what he was trying to sell me. But what did make me sit up was his use, in one of his slides, of an ad from the 1930s: “They laughed when I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play…”. This, for him, was the perfect example of how online content should now be created.

And I thought to myself – have we really regressed this far?

They laughed when I sat down to at the Piano, but when I started to play!

Have we really got to go through all that whole creative revolution thing, and relearn all the lessons that Bill Bernbach taught us, all over again?

Apparently so. So let me have a go here.

Faced with a small, cheap, ugly car, built by a recently defeated enemy, and popularised by a well-known Dictator only twenty years earlier, DDB did not immediately resign the VW account. They treated it as a challenge.

They did not apologise for the smallness of the car, or its strange shape, both of which were unheard of in the US motor market of the early 1960s. Instead they made a virtue of the distinctiveness of those qualities.

And they certainly didn’t research the market, only to be told that no-one would buy a car so strange or so German (Bill Bernbach again: “We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mould it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.”).

No. What they did was create ad after ad, which together began to build the car its own distinct personality – a personality that you could warm to. Love, even.

No single ad represented the whole of the car’s personality; instead the effect was cumulative, building in the memory, adding to the picture. They never underestimated the public or insulted their intelligence – unlike the other vulgar ads of the day.

volkswagen lemon advert

As the campaign progressed, year after year, they were able to sell other VW products like the camper van; move out of press and into other media such as TV and posters. They allowed the personality of the advertising to develop and track the prevailing attitudes of the day, with the result that both the Beetle and the Camper Van became enduring symbols of the 1960s counter culture.

Eagerly adopted by the new wave of British advertising, David Abbot and others successfully took that approach, and the accompanying personality, into new areas, to sell newer, more modern vehicles. But the personality was always consistent. And the effect they generated lasted at least until the 1990s, when I bought into the dream with my own little Beetle.

(continues below)

Driving along a small country lane one hot summer’s day in 1997, I heard a strange little ‘woof’ noise from behind. Glancing in my rear view mirror, I saw flames already leaping from the engine (for those unaware: the classic Beetle’s engine was in the boot); and the soft top had already begun to burn. Seven minutes later, the car was a smoking ruin.

As metaphors go, it’s not an exact match for the decline in VW’s marketing efforts, but it’s pretty close. The collapse in quality was swift, and almost certainly rooted in the general confusion and complexity that now infests marketing departments everywhere.

But the trust VW had built up over years of advertising seems to have been enough to carry the company through its recent little local difficulties with diesel emissions. When you’ve known and liked someone for 50 years, it’s very hard to think entirely badly of them when they’re suddenly arrested for malfeasance.

An example of the awful advertising we’re exposed to these days.

But honestly, when you see what they’re doing now, my overriding emotion is one of despair. Occasionally a TV ad will be amusing, but the jokes now are almost entirely unconnected with the cars they’re trying to sell. The press ads, meanwhile, are frankly baffling. The website shouts at me: a confusing mix of ads and graphics and requests to chat. And right now, on Twitter, their three most recent Tweets each contain clichés that any self-respecting copywriter should be ashamed of (“Access all areas”, “Live every moment”, “Live your dreams”, in case you were wondering).

That sound you can hear? Yep, it’s Bill Bernbach, spinning in his grave.

So let me leave him with (almost) the last word. “However much we would like advertising to be a science – because life would be simpler that way – the fact is that it is not. It is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formularisation, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation; where what was effective one day, for that very reason, will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality.”

Suck on that, beardy boy.


by Jon Shallcross


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