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Ads that made history: Think Small

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World War II is over. The western world is benefitting from an economic boom that is bound to last quite some years, and the effects of which we will still cherish and love many years ahead. Of the numerous societal innovations from those years, the car was certainly one of the most popular. Owning a car in the United States was a way to boast your social status and income. The veterans returning from the war would only have the fastest, biggest and strongest cars on the road.

So how could Volkswagen sell an absolutely normal car, cheap in its making, with a number of shortcomings compared to the much bigger players?

The answer came from Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1959.

The Car of the People

The Volkswagen Beetle had a problem: it did not have all the smooth curves of the other cars, it was slower, it was cheaper, and most importantly, it was commissioned by Adolf Hitler himself.

As many will know, Hitler was not a man of knowledge. He was known for passing other people’s ideas as his own, and he would only ever read the first and last chapter of a book – meaning he would have a superficial knowledge of several topics, but lacked in-depth insight into most things. In his obsession for power and the grandeur of Germany, he saw the automobile as a political tool to expand the influence of his country to the rest of the world. To him, Germany should have produced a “car of the people”: cheap, affordable, easy to repair, and a symbol of the influence of the country around the globe.

Eventually, word reached Ferdinand Porsche, who agreed to meet the Führer instantly. It is likely that Porsche already had all those ideas in mind for his next product, but as mentioned, Hitler would not think twice about repeating others’ ideas as his own. History has it that, after several prototypes had been completed, Hitler decided to build a giant factory and town in Wolfsburg to produce the new “Car of the People” – Volkswagen, indeed.

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The outbreak of World War II meant that the construction of the factory was halted and only resumed at the end of the conflict. The British were now in control of the project and were keen to revive some of Germany’s industrial strength, to help the country restore its national pride. Fast forward about a decade, and the Volkswagen had sold over 100,000 cars by 1958 in Europe, meaning that other car manufacturers were starting to see an interest in small cars and would soon start working on their own.

This is when Volkswagen sent a man called Carl Hahn to America – to Madison Avenue, to be precise.

The Honest Car

Hahn was mostly disappointed by what he saw in Madison Avenue. At the time, creativity wasn’t really on the table for advertising agencies, and most would try to sell the car based on its features, advertising it just as another “car for families”. Hahn knew very well about the potential of the Volkswagen Beetle and knew that its shortcomings were a big part of the picture. Something clicked when he visited Bill Bernbach at DDB.

Bill Bernbach was a father of modern advertising. He believed in creativity and honesty, as well as the importance of research to create campaigns based on solid theoretical grounds. This would enable the clients to rest easy (or easier), knowing that the agency’s approach was somehow grounded in a genuine look at the current market. Hahn loved Bill and his approach to advertising, and he agreed to pay $600,000 for the campaign – which was nothing compared to the millions spent by some of the biggest players in the field.

From there, DDB started working on the ad. Art Director Helmut Krone was paired with Julian Koenig, a Jewish copywriter who was not bothered by the Nazi connections with the product. Bernbach described the Volkswagen as an “honest car”, beautiful in its simplicity, and hence requiring a genuine approach to copywriting. Up until that point, copywriters had been little more than technical writers, often listing product features and trying to create copy with a much sales-oriented approach. Everything would change from the Volkswagen Beetle.

The Führer’s Car

A number of factors contributed to the success of the resulting ad, not all of them positive. Krone was uncomfortable with the concept of selling the “Führer’s car”, and did not put much enthusiasm into creating the campaign. He wanted to make the car sound as American as possible, which Bernbach did not agree with.

As a result, Krone cut a lot of corners and created an ad he personally did not believe in. He used photography instead of illustration, black and white instead of colour, the three-column layout which he himself defined “the Ogilvy layout” – and he personally believed Ogilvy was much inferior in terms of creative advertising.

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The Honest Ad

When first approached with the copy, advertising manager Helmut Schmitz (the client) read the ad and pointed out one small line: “maybe we got so big because we thought small.” Schmitz insisted that “Think Small” should be the core of the ad, and the two-word phrase was adopted as the tagline and headline of the first campaign.

In truth, despite Krone’s criticism of his own work, the ad featured a number of innovations in the advertising scene. The heading and body text were set in a sans-serif typeface, Futura – whereas most copy ad at the time would be set in serif typefaces. A full stop was placed at the end of the headline – a move which forced the reader to stop and think about what they just read. Widows and orphans were everywhere, deliberately imperfect and honest, a unique typesetting that paired well with Koenig’s tone of voice. A strange Volkswagen logo was placed between the second and the third column. It was these subtle changes that made the Think Small ad quirky as it was.

Additionally, the use of photography over illustration was uncommon at the time, even more so as the photo of the Volkswagen Beetle was placed in an ocean of white space. Until then, the traditional style of advertising had included a large illustration with some sales copy, clever or otherwise, to complement the eye-catchy image.

The tone of voice was innovative. As DDB believed in the power of creativity in advertising, the copy was quirky, brutally honest and immensely unique, tapping into a sense of disconnect for the younger generations who were overwhelmed by this pressure to buy and consume everything. The ad just worked.

Despite so, Krone was not a big fan of it. In fact, Krone genuinely hated his work and was expecting a truckload of criticism when the ad released – so much that he chose to leave the country for a week when the time came. Except the criticism only arose from within a much sceptical and traditional advertising industry. America – and the world with it – loved it.

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The Young Car

The Think Small ad released in 1959 to immense success. Many in Madison Avenue would raise an eyebrow to the unconventional copy, typeface and approach, but the public could not care less about such traditionalisms. People all over the US were talking about it. Teenagers ripped the ad out of magazines to hang it in their rooms. Most importantly, sales figures backed up the DDB approach, and Volkswagen reached enormous success in the United States – rivalling giants such as Rolls-Royce, Chevrolet and Ford.

Soon Koenig left to found his own agency and Krone was paired with Bob Levenson, another copywriter. Together they kept pushing boundaries, writing the equally famous Lemon ad in 1960, and the format of a photograph paired with a three-column layout became a recognisable part of the Volkswagen brand soon, to the point that some ad could have easily done without the Volkswagen logo.

It was a milestone in advertising. A watershed moment, destined to change the industry forever. It may sound strange to think about a single print ad as having such a huge impact, but in truth, there is a pre and post-Think Small from DDB.

Think Small

Among other things, Think Small marked a shift in the perception of consumers within the advertising industry. Customers were suddenly smart, able to make informed decisions and find the hidden meaning behind those three columns of creative copy. Tone of voice was quirky, honest, transparent, and it appealed to people’s intelligence in a way that most ad would never do at the time.

It also tapped into the already mentioned sense of disconnect. People in the late 50s were overwhelmed by a constant pressure to buy and consume, and this pressure was especially felt by young people. Just as this voice was starting to be heard around the United States, the Volkswagen Beetle became a symbol of the rising counter culture in America which would later influence most of the 1960s.

And then there’s the more technical and specific side of the ad. Think Small and Bill Bernbach started a creative revolution in advertising. Brands would employ photography much more extensively, sans-serif typefaces were broadly adopted, and copywriters started using a specific tone of voice to sell products, rather than listing the most appealing features.

As the world entered the 1960s, advertising agencies learned the most important lesson of all, and one that we are still discussing today: products can be sold creatively. Creativity is an important part of the advertising process, as well as honesty and simplicity.

Most importantly, the advertising industry learned that, when everything seems lost and we’re overwhelmed by our own deadlines and pressure… Sometimes it’s best to just Think Small.

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