The Consumer Republic: Bug Redux

Like everyone of a certain age, I have memories of the Volkswagen Beetle. They came to mind while watching one of the TV ads introducing the New Beetle, in which a silver Bug whirls through space. The image is meant to evoke a UFO, but it reminded me of the winter night my boyfriend’s back-heavy Bug, rather than stopping at the traffic light, did a 360 into the middle of the intersection and almost killed us both.
Of course, no one holds a little near-death experience against the old Type 1 VW Beetle. Nor do we harbor bad feelings about its lack of heat in the winter or its struggles to climb hills. They’re all part of the mystique of the Bug that Volkswagen hopes consumers will transfer to its reinterpreted successor.
Complete with ’90s necessities such as side air bags and cup holders, the New Beetle was conceived as a cross-generational dream machine capable of satisfying the hippie envy of the young and the nostalgia of the middle-aged. It enters the showrooms ready to tap the vast reservoir of consumer feelings and memories just waiting for some consumable to empty itself into.
Handed this golden opportunity, neither Volkswagen nor Arnold Communications, the shop that created the ads, has squandered it. Though larger, sleeker and more self-consciously “designed” than dumpy Type 1, the new car successfully captures the idea of a Beetle, the Platonic Love Bug that exists in our minds alone. “Hug it? Drive it? Hug it? Drive it?” asks one print ad. I’d say it’s a toss-up.
The new Beetle work nicely complements the 3-year-old “Drivers wanted” campaign, which has managed to find a distinctive voice in an era when so many cars and car ads look alike.
In the most elegant TV spot, a Busby Berkely-style camera looks down on a chorus line of yellow Beetles grouped to form a daisy whose “petals” gradually fade away. The ad promises “Less flower. More power” as a shadowy driver brings a black Beetle to a precision stop. That moment neatly calls up the car’s heritage, while distinguishing the new product from the old. This is not your father’s VW, the ads declare, but isn’t it fun to pretend that it is?
In creating the ads, Arnold took pains to keep it simple, focusing on the car’s evocative silhouette to the exclusion of anything else. (Indeed, the press release announcing the campaign uses the words “simple” and “simplicity” nine times.)
With the addition of computer animation and psychedelic-lite music, the TV spots are much like a pared-down version of a classic Doyle Dane Bernbach print ad set in motion.
This likeness, however, is strictly superficial. Like the car, this campaign is a purely contemporary vehicle. Instead of conjuring up the past, these ads make it clear how distant the past is. Just pull down Bernbach’s “Funeral” from the archive shelves. Settle in for the reading of the will, the roll call of the no-goodnik relatives and the punch line–the thrifty heir-of-choice puttering behind the limos in his Beetle.
This classic is now almost unwatchable, since the interminable staging clashes with our MTV-trained brains. The new ads’ one-liner minimalism (which is what VW and Arnold seem to mean by the s-word) is worlds away.
Thanks to ads such as “Funeral,” consumers came to love Type 1. But the original Beetle was never marketed as lovable. At the heart of the VW oeuvre beats the Unique Selling Proposition. The Beetle, a truly unique automotive product in its time, was pitched by its unsentimental virtues: economy, value, reliability, utility, consistency. Creative revolution or no, the DDB work for VW was deeply rooted in the verities of ’50s advertising.
The VW ads did, of course, create an emotional connection with consumers, who then transformed the ugly thing into the Love Bug. But it’s not the emotion conjured by the New Beetle ad that declares, “Suddenly the world’s glass is half-full again.”
The Beetle was not an emblem of an age of innocence; it was a symbol of an era in which the consumer was wising up. The Bug was the vehicle for the discerning, skeptical consumer–the people who saw through the flashy conspicuousness and planned obsolescence promoted by American mass marketing.
With the New Beetle, all this is turned on its head.
Once sold for its humble usefulness, the Beetle returns as an emotional toy. It’s the car for believers, not skeptics. The consumer has wised up beyond Bernbach’s dreams. Yet the result is a buyer who loves to indulge in magical thinking: Abracadabra!
Suddenly the world’s glass is half-full again.
The New Beetle’s USP is the feeling consumers bring to it, which today is the only USP around.