Pure Gold for Marketers

Volkswagen just appointed a new agency for its $200 million account. Deutsch/LA got the business and the daunting task of living up to some of the best advertising ever produced: Doyle Dane Bernbach’s 1960s Volkswagen campaign. Even non-advertising people know that work as good as this is rare. About as rare as a sunbeam in a cave, to coin a phrase.

As you’re probably aware, it’s a combination of self-effacing humor and selling power that makes the DDB ads so memorable and timeless.

If you think VW’s 50-year-old strategy is something you read about in business school, you’d be right and wrong, because the ads are still out there. You can see them in Volkswagen dealerships, where famous ads like “Lemon” and “Think Small” hang proudly on the walls. They add differentiation, wit and charm to an otherwise generic setting. Lucky you if you’re a customer forced to wait while the service guys finish your brake job. Studying art direction and copy from creative greats like Helmut Krone and Bob Levenson will reward your downtime.

While reading these ads you won’t feel impatient, nor will you easily surrender to a ringing cellphone. They’re riveting that way. As an example, the “Lemon” ad focuses on a new idea for the times: weeding out the duds. “VW inspectors run each car off the line onto the funktionsprüfstand (car test stand), tote up 189 check points, gun ahead to the automatic brake stand and say ‘no’ to one VW out of 50.”

It’s hard to resist the appeal of funktionsprüfstand and an impromptu language lesson. Of course, this cross-cultural effort continues today in the present tagline, “Das auto.”

The vintage ads were truthful, sincere, frank and candid. Astonishingly so in the Mad Men era, when some cars were still portrayed via illustration to make them appear longer, lower and wider than they really were. Simple VW black-and-white photographs were the antithesis of exaggeration, wildly different and highly surprising for the times.

VW’s approach is an education for anyone who makes or approves advertising. What’s remarkable is that messaging created in 1963 has the power to convince you you’re in the right dealership today. Can you imagine the work you’re approving now supporting your brand in 2055? Just think of amortizing the cost of an ad over all those years.

If you can’t get to a VW dealer to see the ads, go to Amazon.com to order the book, Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? The authors, Alfredo Marcantonio, David Abbott and John O’Driscoll, have assembled 300 examples of VW print, TV and radio ads. Page through the ads to become a better judge of ideas that sell. Read the copy to gain a stronger perspective on what product-as-hero is all about.

With this insight you can become more effective when it comes to strategy formulation, writing briefs, directing your agency and judging creative work.

Ads that can spark all this for you must be valuable. In fact, they must be pure gold.

Steve Ulin is associate cd at Hart Associates. He can be reached at sulin@hartinc.com.