This Short Documentary Tells the Story of the Great Volkswagen Ads of the ’60s

Joe Marcantonio's passion project

In his delightful and insightful documentary "Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads?" British filmmaker Joe Marcantonio explores the transcendent power of advertising to help brands overcome their limitations and—in the case of DDB's groundbreaking 1960s work for the German automaker—establish an enduring, vibrant image in the hearts and minds of consumers.

"The piece wasn't commissioned by DDB or VW," Marcantonio tells AdFreak, "I just made it for the love."

His father Alfredo served as VW's advertising manager in the 1970s, and in 1982, the elder Marcantonio co-authored an acclaimed book about the history of the brand's marketing (from which his son's project lifts its title).

Clocking in at just under 20 minutes, the film mixes archival footage with interviews to present a brisk, bouncy stream of fun and incisive commentary from Alfredo Marcantonio and numerous Mad Men-era luminaries who either contributed to DDB's VW work or were influenced by its style.

"I thought that maybe they'd be polite and spare me a few minutes," Joe Marcantonio says of the filmed chats he conducted with John Hegarty, David Trott and Alan Parker (as well as his father). "But each of them was so passionate about the influence it had on their careers, they spoke for much longer than I thought. I thought initially that the film could be five minutes long, but my first cut was 48 minutes. It was really tricky to get it down to 18 minutes." (Conversations with other ad legends, including Helmut Krone and George Lois, were culled from clips dating back to the 1980s.)

VW's ride into the American zeitgeist got off to a bumpy start, given the nameplate's genesis in the 1930s as a form of affordable, reliable transportation for working-class Germans living under the Third Reich.

"To be completely honest, I was wondering what was going on in [former DDB chief Bill] Bernbach's head, because it really had Nazi connotations to it," Krone—the art director behind the campaign's sleek, trendsetting style—explains in the film. "I didn't think it was something that we should do."

Apart from VW's Nazi ties, some members of DDB's creative team initially believed the compact, oddly shaped, sparely appointed Beetles of the era were simply too alien to succeed in the U.S. market of the early 1960s, where fancy, finned, fully loaded vehicles were all the rage.

"I felt the car was so utterly preposterous," says Krone. "We had to Americanize it as quickly as possible, and maybe get somebody like Dinah Shore to do a singing commercial like she was doing at the time: 'See the USA in Your Chevrolet.' " Such schlocky notions were dismissed in favor of a more "intelligent, don't-underestimate-the-public type of advertising" that became DDB's trademark, Krone says.

Simplicity was key. The car itself offered basic, no-frills functionality. Likewise, its advertising was in most respects bare bones. This was especially true of print efforts, defined for a decade by monochrome executions in newspapers and magazines. These often used self-deprecating headlines—"Lemon" and "Think small" rank among the most renowned—and a shot of a single Beetle (either unadorned or, in some cases, satirically in sync with the surrounding copy).

After putting together the first few ads along these lines, Krone left New York for a brief vacation, "rather depressed" about VW's domestic prospects. But when he returned, "people were talking about it—at parties, everywhere, they were talking about these Volkswagen ads!"

Parker, a former copywriter who later became a Hollywood director, distills the campaign's appeal: "I don't think people realized quite how vulgar advertising had become at that time … and therefore, how amazing a Doyle Dane ad, particularly a Volkswagen ad, looked in a magazine filled with rubbish."

The film traces the campaign's successful transition into television. In one vintage spot, a snow-plow operator drives his trusty Beetle through brutal weather … to get to his plow. Another presents next-door neighbors, each with $3,000 to spend. One buys a brand-new $3,000 car (it looks like a big American model). For the same price, the other purchases a refrigerator, a range, a washer, a record player, two TVs … and a brand-new Volkswagen.

"It is miles better than anything out there at the moment," filmmaker Joe Marcantonio says of these classic campaigns. "Pretty much every car ad you see these days looks the same. The cars are shot at the same angle, same height, all are clean, usually in a nondescript cityscape. The ads are made to be safe, to not offend, to appeal to the masses—but that means that they have no honesty to them."

For honest work to emerge, clients must be willing to take a few risks, the filmmaker says. "The bravery of VW can't be underestimated," he says. "They were daring enough to put their complete faith in Bernbach, and were richly rewarded."

Likewise, Bernbach's DDB reaped its own rewards, riding the success of VW (among other clients) to the pinnacle of the '60s Madison Avenue scene. In a broader sense, the campaign elevated the industry as a whole, demonstrating that agencies could indelibly imprint brands across our shared cultural psyche and build long-lasting trust, goodwill and a sense of coolness and fun.

For VW, the positive vibes resonated for five decades. Though at times diminished, they always seemed to rev back up to speed—until September 2015, that is, when VW's emissions scandal began making headlines. Now, more than a full year later, bad feelings from that episode linger.

Given the fragmented media landscape and jaded nature of today's consumers, it's unclear if advertising, no matter how quirky or inspired, can help put the brand's image on the road to recovery.