Lemons, Bugs and Risky Business

Flashback Friday

Friday, 10 October 2014

“The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing.” – Leo Buscaglia

Taking risks and daring to colour outside the lines has always led to game-changing advertising campaigns. We so often see the same thing, packaged in a different way, across products, brands and industries. 

Truly great advertising has balls. 

In the 1950s, Volkswagen was arguably one of the biggest advertising risk takers around. At the time, ads were largely formulaic and offered an exaggerated review of features and benefits with little room for anything else.

With groundbreaking ideas from the fine folk at DDB Manhattan and super clever copy, Volkswagen was a major player in transforming the advertising zeitgeist.

 At the time, the good citizens of the U.S. of A. were favouring gas-guzzling beefy American muscle cars so trying to spriuk the benefits of a small car presented a challenge.

Revolutionary ad man William Bernbach (the B in DDB) along with colleagues Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane, came up with a series of ads for Volkswagen that didn’t just challenge the status quo, they reinvented advertising completely in the process.

The ads were minimalist at a time when minimalist wasn’t even a thing.

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Image source: brandstories.net

Think Small

Featuring a tiny VW Beetle on a largely blank page with a short yet delightfully bold headline inviting readers to Think Small. The ad was supported by clever, witty copy.

This was pretty revolutionary for 1959 and was intended to highlight the simplicity of the VW Beetle. The plain background drew attention to the car and the fine print was a well-crafted spiel about the advantages of owning a small car over beefier counterparts.

Ad Age declared Think Small the best advertising campaign of the twentieth century. 


The risk taking didn’t stop there. The same creative team created the Lemon ads.

As far as car slang goes, lemon is just about the worst moniker you could give an automobile.

Lemons are duds. Bombs. Rip offs. So positioning the headline Lemon under a Volkswagen was pretty daring. The fine print detailed the rigorous testing processes Volkswagen applies to their cars to ensure the lemons stay in the factory: “we pluck the lemons, you get the plums.”

The risk paid off with an ad that was attention-grabbing and effective in its message. Plus, this ad featured in one of the first Mad Men episodes, so you know it was good. 

The same design

Another common theme through VW’s ads was the longevity of the VW Beetle’s design, and how the car retained its value compared to other cars.

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Images: buzzfeed.com

The Volkswagen ads changed the face of an industry and set in motion a revolution that celebrated rebellion, risk taking and boldness against a backdrop of conservative. They captivated eyeballs, sold countless beloved Beetles and to this day are still considered some of the best in history.

Nowadays, with overly conservative boards and extreme corporate responsibilities and sensibilities, brands risk losing that spark, that sense of mischief, that willingness to take a chance.

As an advertising agency, our best advice is this: while best practice is great and serves its purpose, playing it safe is rarely the answer. Sometimes, risks end in epic failure, but sometimes, you’ll get a plum rather than a lemon. And that’s what makes the risk worth it.

We wonder what ads they will be talking about 50 years from now?