Why Volkswagen Beetle Print Ads are inscribed in the brand legacy?

Beetle Print Ads

Volkswagen Beetle Print Ads shook up the automobile industry and the marketing landscape of the 1960s with a climb that only took the brand’s growth higher for years to come.

Volkswagen Beetle was discontinued in December 2019. But the Beetle remains one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable cars that has now seemingly reached the vintage stage. Having reached its final destination, we take a look at what helped a German-origin brand take the automobile industry by storm in a post-Hitler-Era.

The Beginning 

Hostile conduct towards Germany and German products was prevalent in the post World War Two period. The US had emerged as one of the superpowers and was experiencing remarkable economic growth and sustainability with the people majorly being attracted to the cars that were quite the opposite of Beetle. Volkswagen and the Beetle print ads had several challenges laid down the road.

So how did a car that was not just of German origins, but mainly the brainchild of Adolf Hitler along with Ferdinand Porsche and manufactured in German factories laid by Hitler become the biggest selling foreign-made car in America and the fourth most influential car in the 20th century in the 1999 Car Of The Century competition?

With advertising campaigns such as ‘Think Small’ considered as the best advertising campaign of the twentieth century by Ad Age and more campaigns that take an unconventional approach on print advertising divergent from prevailing techniques that alter the image of a car, to fit the image of their car.

Think small.

Beetle print ads
Copyrights: Volkswagen

Béla Barényi, the father of passive safety in automotive design is credited with first conceiving the original design for this car in 1925 after successfully suing Volkswagen for copyright infringement.

Although, the car was heavily influenced by Hitler’s directions who wanted a cheap and simple car that could carry two adults and three children. He was also given the very first convertible Beetle, built in 1938.

Beetle print ads
Source: The Story Behind

William Bernbach, Ned Doyle, and Maxwell Dane founded DDB, the agency that created the ingenious ad campaigns of the 1950s-60s for Volkswagen. Think Small was art directed by Helmut Krone with the copies being written by Julian Koenig at DDB.

DDB revolved the print campaigns around the car’s ‘small’ form and focussed on simplicity & minimalism. Which is why most of the print ads from this campaign and others that followed had a lot of white space with a small image of a Beetle, and focussed on listing advantages as the copy.

Think small. Destroy big.

Beetle print ads
Source: Pinterest

Krone, Bernbach, and Koenig were indeed impressed with the honesty of the car, and they would go ahead and imprint this attribute to most the ad campaigns during this time, and advertise it within reality and not fantasy.

The tone of these ads also had notes of irreverence and humor, mainly towards the car itself. Not shying away from what it is and showing it off like an armor. The idea was to contradict the traditional association of cars with luxury and highlight the advantages of having a small car.

And if you run out of gas, it’s easy to push.

Beetle print ads
Source: Pinterest

While structuring ‘Think Small’, Advertising Manager Helmut Schmitz noticed a line from Julian Koenig’s copy that read “maybe we got so big because we thought small”, then pointed ‘think small’ to be the headline.

The copy of the campaign had a full stop, which is unconventional in advertising even today. But it was designed to make the user stop and actually think about what they just read.

Krone was not a big fan of logos, therefore we can observe ‘out of the ordinary’ logo placements, which also make the feel of the ad to be different than the usual, making it seem like a testimonial and not an ad.

Buy Low. Sell High.

Beetle print ads
Source: Attic Paper

The images of the car used in these ads were largely unretouched photographs of the Beetle in B&W. In one of the most popular ads, the car is placed in the top left-hand corner.

A common practice observed with these ads is the car is positioned and angled in a way that it directs the viewers’ attention to the headline.

The ‘Think Small’ campaign turned out to be significantly cost-effective and efficient. Volkswagen paid DDB $600,000. In comparison to Chevrolet spending $30.4 million on advertising and with Ford at $25 million, Volkswagen ad spends look microscopic but managed to show the bigger picture.

The distinct focus brought wide attention to Beetle. And the following campaigns during that time imbibed Beetle in pop culture forever. Volkswagen also later launched a rendition called Think Tall.

Think Tall.

Beetle Print Ads
Source: Volkswagen

According to research by the Starch Company, Volkswagen advertisements had higher reader scores than editorial pieces in many publications.

The total share of imported cars in the US market was just 7.58% in 1960. Volkswagen Beetle stood as the most popular with more than one lakh fifty thousand units sold, more than twice of Renault, that bagged the second place.

With more innovative campaigns, Volkswagen would do more than just boost sales and as Portland Business Journal states ‘build a lifetime of loyalty’.

Volkswagen Beetle was mightily successful in the 1960s and experienced its greatest sales growth in North America between 1960-1965.

The car increasingly faced competition from more modern designs but its prosperous period had laid a sturdy foundation for years to come with the campaigns that build a consumer community that sits atop the brand loyalty pyramid and it only grew in the coming decades.

Also Read: Mascot Diaries: Meet Murphy Munna who brought innocent fame to Murphy Radios

They said it couldn’t be done. It Couldn’t.

Beetle print ads
Source: Pinterest

In an episode of the Netflix docuseries The Ted Bundy Tapes, one of the members on the team searching for Ted who owned a Volkswagen bug (Beetle) mentioned, there were 42,000 Volkswagen bugs in the state of Washington alone, in 1974.

Volkswagen advertising has also been a topic of discussion in a fragment of Top Gear, and also in S1 E03 of the golden-globe winning series – Mad Men.

The characters in the segment end up discussing the ad ‘Lemon’ and the brand’s advertising strategy after one of them spots it in a magazine, to later realize they had been chewing over it for fifteen minutes and the ad had managed to catch their attention in a Playboy magazine.


Beetle print ads
Source: Swipe File

Mad Men S1 E03

The campaign Think Small’s success has also been the subject of a number of books & scholarly analysis such as Think Small: The Story of those Volkswagen Ads by Frank Rowsome; Think Small: The Story of the World’s Greatest Ad by Dominik Imseng, Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle by Andrea Hiott.

The bug has also been featured in several movies, with the most popular being the ‘Herbie’ series, The Love Bug, Double Trouble and Happy Gilmore.

The Love Bug

Double Trouble

The current generation of Beetle won’t be replaced and has gone out of production. Frank Welsch, Chief Development Officer, Volkswagen at the Geneva Motor Show 2018 mentioned that as Beetle is made with history in mind, two or three generations had sufficed the car. In an emotionally moving animated campaign, the brand bid adieu to one of their most prized possessions.



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A wordsmith by profession who likes art, Beatles, Coffee, DiCaprio and Eminem brings a fresh perspective contrary to existing perceptions and believes in questioning everything, also has a belief that there should be a bigger place in the world for words and not war. He prefers the phenomena of the physical world of plants and animals(especially dogs) over possessions. Reckons moving to the rhythm and moving on.


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