Throw the book at them

Volkswagen’s press ads of the 1960s and 70s remain a high point of the form, as a new edition of the collected DDB campaigns continues to prove

Why is modern car advertising such a car crash? And so utterly frustrating to work on? Car ads seem to be one of the few opportunities you get to create double-page spreads these days. But 99 times out of 100, the result is a bland, generic, waste of money with a huge lump of boringly presented silver metal occupying at least two-thirds of the layout.

Having spent the last year or so pushing water uphill and getting precisely nowhere with a global campaign for a car brand, I’m pretty well placed to hazard a guess. The main problem tends to be that ‘g’ word. It’s pretty much impossible to create great global ads for cars at the moment. Too many markets, too many ill-informed opinions, too many clueless stakeholders who have the power to say no but never yes.

The result? A bland, ignorable, ineffective waste of millions of dollars. Coming to a billboard, screen or magazine page near you soon. Which brings me nicely to the VW ad sitting on my desk. It’s on the outside back of The Sunday Times Magazine (September 7). It’s unbelievably awful. And I certainly wouldn’t even have noticed it had I not been writing this article. I can’t bring myself to reproduce it here – you’ll just have to imagine it (which won’t be hard, it looks like every other car ad you’ve seen this year).

The headline says: ‘More space, more comfort, more Golf.’ Hmm… It’s reversed out of a light blue sky which actually makes the line pretty hard to read. On reflection that’s a bit of a blessing I suppose. But that minor piece of art directional incompetence really is the least of its problems. The middle portion of the picture is filled to the entire width of the page with a ridiculously perfect rendering of a rear three-quarters, immaculately and impossibly-lit silver VW Golf SV. With the words ‘New Golf SV’ clunkily printed on the number plate. And the wheels have been treated with a crude radial blur to kid the viewer that the car is speeding through the bland, nondescript sunny environment (not that we can see too much of anything because the car is so big it fills our view).

Above the body copy there’s a sub-head in bold type. It says, you guessed it, ‘The new Golf SV.’ Surely it’s kind of insulting to the reader to simply repeat things (in bold). There’s a clear assumption that they didn’t quite understand it the first time they read it. Is that a good way to treat potential customers? Probably not.

The three short lines of copy beneath it are so boring I honestly cannot imagine anyone who starts to read it, getting to the end. We then 2 3 see a logo with not one but two end-lines attached to it. The first, to the left of the logo says ‘Designed for life’. The second, underneath the logo says ‘Das Auto’ at a smaller point size. But it gets even worse. Along the base of the ad, at the same point size as the body copy but about three times the length, is an endless list of fuel consumption and emissions data that no-one will ever read. This is a mind-numbing piece of work.

And the obvious question is how in God’s name can this happen to VW advertising when the bar was set so high by art director Helmut Krone and copywriter Julian Koenig at agency Doyle Dane Bernbach in New York City over 50 years ago? Flick through the newly expanded edition of Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads?, originally written by Alfredo Marcantonio, David Abbott and John O’Driscoll in 1982, and you’ll see what I mean. Over 350 pages of some of the finest advertising you will ever see.

In fact, I really would like to take a copy of this wonderful book, then gather everyone responsible for the awful ad described above into a room and compare and contrast their ad with the brilliant work on display. Work that pretty much invented modern advertising. I genuinely cannot imagine how they would begin to justify their efforts.

So let’s play along with my scenario. Starting with their inane headline. Where’s the intelligence? The wit? The charm? The confident, lovable self-deprecation? The memorability – er, what was their line again…? There are hundreds of great examples in this book. Way too many to reproduce here.

But let’s just enjoy for a moment gems such as ‘It makes your house look bigger’ above a small image of a VW beetle on a poster; or ‘It’s possible’ under a reportage-style photograph of a VW Beetle being stopped by a cop for speeding [both shown on previous spread]. Or another brilliantly self-deprecating line: ‘Don’t laugh’ under a real VW Beetle police car owned by Officer HL Wilkerson of the Scottsboro, Alabama Police Department. I’m not sure it would occur to a creative team to come up with an ad like that these days, and I’d be gob-smacked if any client actually bought it.

Let’s move on to the car photography. One of the underrated aspects of the original VW work was the way in which the car was presented. The complete opposite of the over-the-top airbrushed renderings that were in vogue at the time. They often used natural daylight in favour of complex studio lighting. Normal lenses, not exaggerated wide-angle distortions. And the car was very rarely huge within the page layouts. In other words, completely unpretentious. They had a kind of honesty about them. In stark contrast to today’s too-perfect-to-be-true 3D computer renderings with false pixel-perfect lighting and a complete lack of soul.

Again, it’s inconceivable that a modern client would approve an image of their latest model upside down. But what a great image to stop anyone flicking through a magazine dead in their tracks. I’m referring to the ‘Will we ever kill the bug?’ ad reproduced here. I also love the ‘Few things in life work as well as a Volkswagen’ ad where we see four real-life photographs of VW Beetles battling through snow and floods and mud [both ads shown on previous spread]. I don’t think there’s a button in today’s 3D computer programmes for that.

And sometimes the VW ads didn’t even feature a car. Imagine suggesting such a thing these days. My absolute favourite example being an empty page, [shown on previous spread], below which we see the small headline ‘No point in showing the ’62 Volkswagen. It still looks the same.’ Again, an ad designed to stop the viewer dead in their tracks.

There’s much more of course. How about a close-up photograph of an Alka-Seltzer as a VW logo dissolving in a glass of water with the line ‘If gas pains persist, try a Volkswagen.’ Brilliant. Or a red line on a sheet of graph paper that describes the shape of a VW Beetle with the line ‘Is the economy trying to tell you something?’ Or a picture from 1969 of the moon landing vehicle with the great line ‘It’s ugly, but it gets you there.’ There’s even a visual of a wooden crate with a VW van crudely painted on it. Fabulous.

What exactly makes our modern, boring rendering of a VW Golf SV a more memorable image than those examples? What could our room full of modern marketing professionals possibly say?

But of course the old VW ads didn’t always have great headlines. Sometimes they didn’t even have headlines at all. I love the gas station ad for a VW Station Wagon reproduced here, below. The copy is so good, the ad doesn’t need a headline. Radical.

But not as radical as an ad not needing a logo. Or an end-line. I counted 42 VW press ads without logos in this book. How confident is that? Unthinkable in today’s supposedly sophisticated, but in reality, often stupid marketing environment. Dropping the logo comes from art director Krone’s mantra that an ad that does not look like an ad is more effective. True.

By now, I would hope that some of the wisdom in this book had somehow rubbed off on my room full of modern yet useless marketing professionals. And I would invite them to try and successfully complete another truly great ad from the book. The ‘How to do a VW ad’ page. I may have a long wait on my hands.

Paul Belford is the founder of agency Paul Belford Ltd and a CR columnist – his Art Directing the Idea column on page 82 looks at another VW classic. See Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? by Alfredo Marcantonio, John O’Driscoll and David Abbott is published by Merrell; £39.95. More at and All images from Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? by Alfredo Marcantonio, David Abbott and John O’Driscoll (Merrell Publishers)

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