Tall Tale for Small Car

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Dominik Imseng, author of “Ugly Is Only Skin-Deep” (Matador), is a master of oral history. His brilliant piecing together of Volkswagen’s classic ’60s ad campaign is both illuminating and entertaining. It is also surprising to learn that American advertising had little trouble accepting such a self-deprecating tone. I recently asked Imseng to give me a veritable CliffsNotes description of his forthcoming manuscript. To get a free preview chapter, send Imseng an email: dimseng@me.com.

vw lemon

What inspired you to write not one, but two, books about the mythic Volkswagen ads?Let’s say that I wrote one-and-a-half books. “Ugly Is Only Skin-Deep,” which comes out in November, will be the largely expanded version of “Think Small. The Story of the World’s Greatest Ad,” published in 2011. That book had a very special format and replicated the layout and typography of “Think Small.” It was sort of the smallest coffee table book on earth. “Ugly Is Only Skin-Deep” will have a conventional format and recount the story of the ENTIRE Volkswagen campaign, from the first ads in 1959 until the last ads in the mid-’70s.

How does your book differ from “Small Wonder: The Amazing Story of the Volkswagen”?“Small Wonder” is great, but it is primarily for the fans of the Beetle, not for those who would like to know more about its advertising. For “Ugly Is Only Skin-Deep,” I conducted interviews with many of the legendary copywriters and art directors involved in the campaign—from the late Julian Koenig and Bob Levenson to Len Sirowitz and Bob Kuperman. I also had extensive conversations with Carl H. Hahn, the original client, and placed the VW ads in the context of the artistic and cultural revolution of the ’60s. Finally, my book will be illustrated with a lot of VW ads.


Why did VW select the agency DDB for the ads?According to Carl H. Hahn, Volkswagen had been evaluating about a dozen agencies. They all had presented spec ads that looked exactly like every other ad of the late ’50s. The only difference was that where the cigarette or the tube of toothpaste had been, they had placed a Volkswagen. Bill Bernbach, however, was convinced that if a potential client wasn’t able to judge the agency from the work it was doing for its current clients, he would not be able to judge it all. This impressed Hahn, and in July 1959, the contract between DDB and Volkswagen of America was signed. The advertising budget for the Beetle was a mere $600,000—2 percent of what Detroit was prepared to spend for its new ‘compact’ cars. So Volkswagen REALLY needed a fantastic ad campaign.

There is a lot of joking about the VW being Hitler’s legacy. And the car was indeed made with slave labor. How could an agency with a Jewish head sell it so close to the war’s end? Wasn’t there any pushback?The funny thing is: Copywriter Julian Koenig, who was Jewish, didn’t have a problem with selling the ‘Führer’s car,’ but art director Helmut Krone, who was from German descent, did. George Lois told me that Bernbach only wanted to keep Volkswagen for a year or so to prove that DDB could create great car advertising, too, and attract General Motors. Maybe this is true. If it isn’t, let’s not forget that the first U.S. distributors of the Beetle were all Jews and that by 1959, Germany and Israel had started getting along. So it had sort of become OK for a Jewish agency to sell a car with Nazi connotations.


You write that Julian Koenig proposed showing a picture of Hitler with the headline, “The Man Behind the Volkswagen,” and that George Lois made a flip-book where the VW logo became a swastika. But how did the campaign develop?I guess that Koenig’s Hitler ad and Lois’ flip-book were done to ‘creatively loosen up.’ In fact, the brief for the Volkswagen campaign was very clear. One of the consequences of owning a Beetle, account supervisor Ed Russell had discovered, was that its owners often had to justify the choice of a Volkswagen to others. Why had they bought such a small car? Why was the engine in the back? Why didn’t the car need water? Why was the design always the same? So Koenig and Krone set forth the specific advantages of owning a Beetle, giving its owners more arguments to talk the car up. Bill Bernbach wasn’t really involved in the creation of the ads, by the way. But, of course, he had built the only agency in the world where the creative magic of the Volkswagen campaign could happen.

How did treating the car as underdog go over with the brass at VW?They didn’t have a problem with “thinking small” and giving the Beetle the personality of the lovable underdog bravely standing up to the competition from Detroit. Instead, they quickly understood that this positioning made perfect sense. To me, Carl H. Hahn might have been the best client an ad agency has ever had because of his no-nonsense approach to advertising. Why pay for ads if you don’t have something relevant to say? If you don’t want to get noticed? If you don’t want to get talked about? Hahn realized that advertising is an extremely powerful weapon—if you have the guts to use it.


Do you think that the ad campaign being so unapologetic or, shall we say, denying of the Nazi era, was straight out of Goebbels’ information distortion playbook?Touché! But then again, you could argue that by using self-deprecation and irony—traditional elements of Yiddish humor—DDB sold Hitler’s car by making it Jewish. Let’s just say that the thinking behind the Volkswagen campaign was very, very clever.

Do you think it ironic that Nazi propaganda was the BIG LIE and VW ads were called “honest advertising”?Sure. But that’s exactly why the story of the Volkswagen campaign is so fascinating. The favorite car of Hitler becomes the favorite car of the hippies. How could advertising ever achieve more? With my book, I’d like to make the reader appreciate the power of creativity.