Advertising ostentatious economy – Ad Age’s best ad of all time

Posted by | · · · · | The Hunter Blog | 5 Comments

[tweetmeme] In 1959, Bill Bernbach oversaw Julian Koenig and Helmut Krone’s immortal ‘Think Small’ VW ad. They had single-handedly taken on the ultimate symbol of US consumer society: the huge, outsized, inefficient chrome-and-metal Detroit cars.

The VW Beetle was the antithesis: small, unchanging in its design, and economical. Selling this would be no mean feat.

And arguably an even harder job than most realised: After visiting VW’s production facility in Germany, Koenig and Krone told Bernbach that they hadn’t come up with any new ads but the marketing


problem was now clear: they had to

“sell a Nazi car in a Jewish town.”

Bernbach was unamused by this, and set them to work trying to solve the challenge of attractively positioning ostentatious economy in a world of ostentatious excess. They solved the problem using the classic David and Goliath approach: Goliath expected a physical fight, David knew he couldn’t compete directly so changed the fight to a slingshot competition without telling Goliath. VW did the same: Knowing they couldn’t compete directly with the huge, inefficient Detroit cars, they changed the fight to economy and frugality.

A game only they could win.

A lot of green/sustainable marketing managers lay awake at night fearful that their ‘economical’ products will drown in the torrent of bigger-faster-cheaper consumerism. It’s an irrational fear. The problem was solved 60 years ago. And it’s a problem that will be ‘solved’ again, and again, and again.

It’s a simple equation: The ‘Think Small’ ad is an expression of the product’s attributes.

“Advertising doesn’t create a product advantage. It can only convey it.” — Bill Bernbach

It’s in the marketeers’ gift – along with the ad agency’s planning department – to define a product’s advantage. So don’t shy away from the economical nature of your green/sustainable product – with the world demanding green/sustainable solutions you have a wonderful gift to give.

And 60 years ago, Bernbach found a wonderful way to give it.

‘Think Small’ is the number one ad in the AdAge top 100 ads of the century.

thinksmall

Oliver Payne is author of the cognitive-behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge,available in most countries on Amazon, etc, (options here), and you can download a sample of every chapter below:



5 Comments

Phil Woodford says:

February 17, 2010 at 11:20 pm

It's interesting to place this historic ad in the context of current debates on the environment and sustainable economics.

Although DDB were obviously given a very difficult brief – the Nazi car arriving in NYC not long after WW2 – the significance of 'Think Small' at the time was that it ushered in a new era of advertising creative. It represented a triumph of art direction and conceptual thinking over more literal and copy-led approaches. I suspect it's therefore remembered and cherished more for its style than its substance. But, hey, that's advertising for you.

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TheHunterBlog says:

February 18, 2010 at 9:12 am

Good comments Phil, and I think you're right – it will be remembered as a triumph of art direction and conceptual thinking over more literal and copy-led approaches – and all the better for it. The fact that it doesn't shout about its fuel economy in a race to the green pound is exactly the approach that works today: appealing to people's better conscience only works for the small group of customers whose conscience is already pricked.

It is, of course, also open season for behavioural change approaches. Something Bernbach also hinted at understanding ("Human nature hasn't changed for a million years. It won't even vary for the next million years. Only the superficial things have changed…." for full quote go to adpulp http://www.adpulp.com/archives/2005/10/the_more_t

Thanks for your comments.

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Plastic Recycling says:

November 22, 2010 at 4:30 pm

What an interesting advertisement and an even more fascinating story behind it! I think the end of the advertisement is spot-on where they talk about the small price of insurance, repairs, gas, etc and how easy it is to park in small parking spaces. Genius!

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Maria says:

April 27, 2011 at 5:05 am

The funny thing is, that despite the fact that VW is constantly trying to create a new "beatle effect" they're hard pressed to ever redo the initial launch.

/Maria

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Sandy says:

June 11, 2012 at 9:30 am

It great article which they solved the problem using the classic David and Goliath approach: Goliath expected a physical fight, David knew he couldn’t compete directly so changed the fight to a slingshot competition without telling Goliath. In which the marketeers’ gift along with the ad agency’s planning department to define a product’s advantage. Thanks a lot for posting this article.

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