Still modern, fifty years on

A bold image, clean graphics and copy that sells a benefit: just what’s so old fashioned about this VW press ad?

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Modern advertising was invented in New York City in the 1950s. At Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB). In fact, there’s a great scene in an episode of Mad Men where a bunch of ad executives are bewildered by a real VW Beetle ad by DDB. The layout and typography were decidedly European and minimal and the copy dramatised benefits of the car in a new, smart and insightful way. It was a revolution.

But I’m worried that vast swathes of the advertising business may have come full circle. I can honestly imagine a bunch of Dalston hipsters with cringe-worthy job titles (like ‘code poet’) in some cutting edge brand-platform-innovation-activation-digital-strategic-bullshit agency, looking at the same ad with the same degree of incomprehension.

The ad world should be busy learning from history, standing on the shoulders of giants. Instead it seems to be obsessed with the deluded belief that we’re all suddenly supposed to be in the tech business. Furiously inventing digital gimmicks on behalf of our clients. In the vain hope that someone tweets it. Or it becomes the joke item at the end of the daily news (it rarely happens). Stupid. Mad men indeed.

Advertising is something entirely different. Something much more powerful. At its best, it dramatises persuasive arguments by presenting them with intelligence and wit and impact. I don’t care about the medium. I care about the message. It’s why the book where I found this ad is so important. It’s called Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads?, published by Merrell. I’ve reviewed it elsewhere in this magazine [see page 64].

Today’s agencies can learn a lot from it. Like the fact that you don’t need planners to create great work. Sorry guys. The empirical experiment has been done and this book is the irrefutable, statistically significant proof. These ads were created in an agency without planners.

The book also shows us how to write and art direct. Take this ‘old-fashioned’, ‘traditional’, ‘press’ ad (as our Dalston friends would no doubt sneeringly describe it). The great copy actually sells a benefit, a reason to buy the car.

And the visual idea makes the page impossible to ignore. They’ve dispensed with the services of a headline, a dumb end-line and even a logo. Is the viewer in any doubt that this is a Volkswagen ad? Of course not. Less is more.

At this point I would normally ponder why the apostrophes in the copy have been changed from the Futura font to something else. Weird. I may also wonder why the descenders on the lower-case ‘g’ have been squashed so much. I could even grumble that someone forgot to level up the VW logos on the hub caps.

But those issues all seem pretty insignificant when we consider the truly astounding fact that this ad is over half a century old yet more modern than anything you’ll see today.

‘Traditional’ my arse. (Excuse my colourful language.)

Paul Belford is the founder of London-based agency Paul Belford Ltd. He tweets from @belford_paul and more of his work can be found at paulbelford.com

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