Volkswagen “Think Small!” Ads

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.

Think small

Think small

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.

1954 Buick

1954 Buick

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.

Nash - multiple=

Nash - multiple features to boast of!

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.

Going, going

Going, going

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.

Will we ever kill the bug?

Will we ever kill the bug?

The Volkswagen is the one in red

The Volkswagen is the one in red

That's how many times we inspect a Volkswagen

That's how many times we inspect a Volkswagen

The famous Italian designer suggested one change

The famous Italian designer suggested one change

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.

33 years later, he got the bug

33 years later, he got the bug

Don't laugh

Don't laugh

This was Bernbach’s approach – simplicity before complexity. Bernbach was THE MAN who changed the way we make ads.

About ranman

Design educator with a Masters of Design degree. 32 years of design experience. View all posts by ranman

23 responses to “Volkswagen “Think Small!” Ads

  • jluis

    I love this post

  • Jennifer

    Hello – Do you know of anyone who sells large prints of these ad’s? My husband is an Ad guy and we have been looking for these. Any help is appreciated. Thanks!

  • ranman

    I wished I did. Guess you would have to trawl the internet to find one. Sorry, couldn’t be of much help.

  • Isabella Rwabose

    good stuff…

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    […] that he has taken credit for other peoples work. In 2008 the New York Times stated that the “Think Small” Volkswagen ad campaign wasn’t created by George Lois (with some credit going to Julian Koenig ). When I hear this I […]

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    […] Contrastingly Bill Bernbach set aside from this, “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.” Taken from – […]

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  • Lee Sumner

    Wow! What a hip idea at a time when there was absolutely no alternative. I think that VW had the right idea by making something new seem cool instead of lame.

  • meganellis442

    Has anyone seen the ads for the Scion iQ? There is a huge poster of one in downtown Portland and it appears to be a take off this campaign. The one I am referring to is a large poster on the side of a building with lots of white space and picture of the Scion iQ car. The tagline reads, “I am actual size”. It is pretty interesting and definitely attracts attention.

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    […] down in my notebook earlier. One of those thoughts that I was especially excited to share was Volkswagen’s “Think Small” campaign launched by the agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. So cool! It was ballsy, and different, and above all, […]

  • stratejist1

    very thnaks .. very nostalgic

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    • ranman

      (Translated from Bing) In October of this year, 30 of the death of William Bernbach, one of the great creative in the history of communication are met. The father of concepts that changed the way of looking at things, one of the men that laid the foundations of the current advertising and who wrote some of the most studied ads in universities around the world. A man who when everyone wanted to think big, he thought “think small”.

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    […] In 2 de studentie, am tot citit carti sau articole de specialitate si am intalnit frecvent, ca exemplu, campania de advertising “Think small”, realizata in anul 1959 de Helmuth Krone cu copy-uri scrise de Julian Koenig – ambii de la agentia Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) – pentru a promova pe piata din S.U.A nou-lansatul model al Volkswagen, Beetle. Campania era atat de spectaculoasa pentru ca avea un dublu scop. In primul rand, modificarea preferintelor americanilor pentru masinile puternice (asa-numitele muscle-cars), pentru ca apoi sa determine vanzarea VW Beetle, o masina mica si compacta. Provocarea era cu atat mai mare cu cat masina provenea din Germania Nazista, la doar 14 ani dupa terminarea celui de-al Doilea Razboi Mondial. Campania a cuprins o serie de print-uri de tipul celui de mai jos, cu masina mult micsorata, cu logo-ul Volkswagen foarte subtil plasat in partea de jos si cu mare accent pe partea de copy, in care erau prezentate beneficiile aduse de acest automobil.  A fost prezentata ca o masina eco-friendly (in comparatie cu muscle-car-urile de atunci), cu 40 de ani inainte ca acest lucru sa devina un trend in publicitate. (Mai multe print-uri, aici) […]

    • ranman

      (Translated from Bing)…2 sophomore, I still read books or articles and I have met frequently, as an example, the advertising campaign “Think small”, created in 1959 by Helmuth Krone with copy-written by Julian Koenig-both from the Agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB)-to promote the u.s. market’s newly launched model of the Volkswagen Beetle. The campaign was so spectacular that it had a dual purpose. First, change the Americans ‘ preferences for powerful cars (so called muscle-cars), and then to determine selling VW Beetle, a small and compact car. The challenge was even greater as the car came from Nazi Germany, just 14 years after the end of World War II. The campaign included a series of prints to the one below, with much reduced, with Volkswagen logo very subtly placed at the bottom and with great emphasis on the copy, which were presented to the benefits of this car. It was presented as an eco-friendly car (compared with muscle-car sites since then), with 40 years before this becomes a trend in advertising. (Several prints, here) […]

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