So there I was, lecturing about the intrinsics of white space the other day to a class, when projected on the screen was good old Bernbach’s Volkswagen ad; you know the “Oh $#^%! I painted myself into a corner” ad with the Beetle tucked away at the extreme corner.
What an ad. What a campaign, launched in 1959 by ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, one of the most legendary advertising agencies in history.
And what a concept… “Think small” according to Advertising Age, was the No. 1 campaign of the 20th century. At a time when the US consumers were being urged, cajoled and ‘persuaded’ to “think big” along comes this one ad suggesting the opposite.
Looking back at the context of that time, it appeared ludicruous. Why? Simply because Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) essentially took a German car originally created for Adolph Hitler (the Volkswagen Beetle) and sold it to post-war Americans through radically styled advertisements.
The Volkswagen, which in German means “People’s car ” was essentially a political promise by Adolf Hitler to win the goodwill of the German public in the 1930s. Before Hitler came to power, Germany was suffering the economic effects of the Great Depression with unemployement rising to 3,000,000 by September 1930. The situation was dismal, the manufacturing industry was badly hit and everyone was suffering. Cars cost more than what most people earned in a year. When Hitler thus became the chancellor of Germany in 1933, one of the things he did was the promotion of the idea of an automobile that was affordable enough for the average working person. Hitler met with automotive designer Ferdinand Porsche in 1933 and the Porsche-designed Volkswagen was born.
After World War 2, post war America was geared to achieve great heights in its economy, unravaged by war and its industries, raw material and illustrious people – with a surplus of discharged servicemen from the armed forces, was set to do so.
So what was then happening with the automobile advertising scene in the 1950s? The ongoing concept for automobile advertisements was to show people, proud owners and passengers evoking great joy and satisfaction about these new shiny big acquisitions. Commercial photography was then in its infancy and was not preferred when it came to capturing the ‘essence’ of the automobile; a great deal of automotive images were multiple illustrated artwork featuring all the exciting features of the vehicle. The advertisements were visually colourful; you can’t miss them with their hand-lettered headlines, big illustrations and large logotypes. The inherent message sent out was: “This is the American Dream, Live it!” – the underlying statement was the definition of those successful individuals who possessed the ability to afford a big house and a nice car for a quality lifestyle.
Every automobile ad then began saying the same thing: Oldsmobile proudly proclaimed,“You’ve got to drive it to believe it!” Chevrolet, expounded “Filled with grace and great new things,” while Buick promised, “You can make your ‘someday’ come true now.” The catch words were: “New, Shiny, Big and Great Features!”
But Volkswagen’s “Think small” advertisement had lots of white space, the product advertised was miniscule, the headline lacked news value and worse of all… it was in black and white! The ad campaign however generated favourable publicity because the advertisements were brilliantly written, for instead of marketing it to consumers as a luxurious, spacious vehicle as all its competitors were doing, it focused on the benefits of its compact size and affordability.
A reader of that time, flipping through a magazine full of articles and cluttered advertisements would suddenly turn the page and see a near-blank minimalistic page with a tiny photograph, “realistic” against all those artificial illustrations, of a Volkswagen, some copy at the bottom, and the headline “Think Small.” Quaint but very assured and confident.
The advertisements were brilliant on a visual level – the potent contrast of empty space caused any image in close proximity to immediately pop from the page. This witty, charming, and intelligent approach was cohesively integrated into Volkswagen television ads and the rest of their campaign.
This was Bernbach’s approach – simplicity before complexity. Bernbach was THE MAN who changed the way we make ads.