How One Volkswagen Campaign Changed Auto Advertising

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Cars and advertising have been linked since the dawn of the automobile. Mass-produced models from General Motors and Ford pushed American agencies to reach a global audience. Marketing and car styles evolved in tandem, reflecting each era’s aesthetic and values.
No campaign is more emblematic of this than Volkswagen’s “think small” campaign. Initially published in 1959, the cheeky, minimalistic magazine ad completely shifted marketing concepts and helped usher in the progressive ideas of the ‘60s.
Conceived to introduce the Type 1 Beetle to the American market, “think small” broke the mold in much the same way as the car it sold. Neither the car nor the ad looked anything like the popular concepts in the U.S. at the time. Together, they changed both industries forever.
A blue and white Volkswagen logo
Volkswagen’s “think small” campaign changed advertising.

The atmosphere of auto advertising in the ‘50s

The style of the ‘50s was all about status, comfort, and positivity. Life had suddenly become a lot more convenient than before. The post-war boom, coupled with the mass production of items like TVs, dishwashers, and cars, meant people had a lot more time and money to spend. 
Or at least that was what the era’s ad agencies wanted people to believe. The Agency’s Mark Hamilton says decade’s marketing strategies were dominated by a technical, formulaic approach focused on making people link success with having all the latest and greatest.
Led by people like Rosser Reeves, who saw creativity as “the most dangerous word in advertising,” ad men relied on psychology and repetition to drive sales. As cars grew bigger, their ads grew more outlandish, every model presented as a step in the pursuit of happiness.

How the Volkswagen Beetle ad changed the conversation

The Volkswagen Type 1 “Beetle” did not fit in with this narrative. Compared to the boats being built by Ford and Chevy, the Beetle looked like a little button. It was also designed on orders from Hitler in the ‘30s, not exactly a convenient origin story in 1950s America.
The company’s ugly history and its car’s alien style made for a difficult sell to the American public. Any ad campaign would have to be careful yet bold. So that’s exactly what the team at New York ad agency DDB produced. 
Instead of flooding the page with a luxurious illustration of the classic American Dream, art director Helmut Krone and copywriter Julian Koenig paired a clean, honest message with a tiny photo and plenty of negative space. It all worked together to make the Beetle stand out.

The legacy of the “think small” Volkswagen campaign

Originally published in 1959, Koenig and Krone’s revolutionary ad was a precursor to a lot of cultural change. Within a few years, the ad they designed would inspire the hippie movement to adopt Volkswagen as its own and cover its Beetle with symbols of peace and love. 
For years afterward, Volkswagen continued using the concept of the “think small” campaign, swapping out the headline for cheeky slogans like, “It’s ugly, but it gets you there,” and “Lemon.” Even today, many consider Volkswagen’s brand to be synonymous with thinking differently.
More recently, that brand was damaged by an emissions scandal that resulted in enormous fines and jail time for a few Volkswagen executives. But to recover, where did the company look? To its own ‘60s heritage, reintroducing the Type 2 microbus concept with the ID.Buzz.

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