How could Volkswagen sell Hitler’s favorite car to the American people only a decade and a half after World War II? This was the question asked of the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1960. In order for them to solve this problem, they would have to find a new way to advertise their products. The now revered “Lemon” ad for the Beetle was their answer to this considerable task, which would revolutionize the advertising industry. DDB introduced the Beetle with this dynamic ad that seemed effortless, yet possessed a revolutionary approach to marketing. It connected with consumers, successfully integrating European small design into a culture with a big lifestyle. This ad, along with others from the campaign, was the first to represent a perfect balance of image, copy and simplicity, setting a benchmark that has inspired advertisers to do better ever since.
The ad featured a black and white photo of the Volkswagen Beetle with the word “Lemon” in bold san serif font. Below the image follows a statement that proclaims that this particular car was rejected by Inspector Kurt Kroner because of a blemish on the chrome piece of the glove box. The ad goes on to describe the rigorous inspection process; one out of fifty does not pass for something as simple as a scratch on the windshield. “This preoccupation with detail means the VW lasts longer and requires less maintenance, by and large, than other cars.” Concluding with a memorable tag line “We pluck the lemons; you get the plums,” it gives the reader a first impression that Volkswagen is calling their own car a lemon, while intriguing them to read further to see that it is really about the rigorous inspection process that Volkswagens go through.
The driving force behind the Volkswagen campaign was William Bernbach of DDB. Bernbach is considered the father of the “creative revolution” in the advertisement industry. “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level,” Bernbach said, insisting that you first learn how a client’s products related to their targeted audience. Only then did he decide how best to convey those elements in print. The Volkswagen ad campaign was unlike any before it, ushering in an era of modern advertising that truly changed how advertising agencies accomplish their trade.
While the Detroit Auto market was designing large cars with many accessories, the Volkswagen Beetle remained familiar in its simplicity. Echoed in the campaign for the car, DDB utilized a minimalist approach to selling that related to the reader on a personal level. Inspector Kurt Kroner is looking out for you, the car buyer, not a faceless corporation imploring you to spend more, but a company that has people rejecting cars for something as minor as a hair line scratch in the windshield. The ad relates to the consumer that Volkswagen is held to a higher standard than other automobile producers, in doing so, successfully selling the Beetle
Direct and to the point with a touch of humor, the ad has stood the test of time and will be remembered for many generations as a breakthrough in product to consumer relations. The ads before utilized clichés, a hammer pounding on a head to sell headache medicine, or a little toy in the cereal box, but DDB created a better way. Bernbach said “Logic and over-analysis can immobilize and sterilize an idea. It’s like love — the more you analyze it, the faster it disappears.” Bernbach implied that by not over thinking advertisement but by changing the way you think about that advertisement, it would yield more successful results. This change in thinking revolutionized the process in which advertising agencies went about creating their designs, lifting it onto a higher level.