Driving forces - Issue 76 - Magazine | Monocle

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In the 1950s, Volkswagen had an interesting problem: how to sell a good car with a bad history. Or, as the legendary Madison Avenue advertising executive George Lois put it with regards to the New York market, how to sell a Nazi car in a Jewish town. Well, you put your best people on the job.

The Doyle Dane Bernbach (ddb) advertising agency and copywriter William Bernbach set the tone (humorous, intelligent, ironically detached) for a generation of adverts that have become cultural artefacts. At ddb UK, John O’Driscoll was a creative beneath the emollient David Abbott. Abbott headed the team for which Alfredo Marcantonio was originally the client at Volkswagen – before the latter decided to join ddb as a creative as well.

Using a clean, Bauhaus-inspired design and Futura-style typeface, the adverts soon became a template through which creative minds of the age communicated to car-buyers and sold 20 million models in the process – by making jokes and taking risks. Volkswagen’s adverts transformed an industry. To celebrate a new book, Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads?, its authors Marcantonio and O’Driscoll (sadly without the dearly departed Abbott) sat down to reminisce about the campaigns that transformed advertising.

Alfredo Marcantonio: It was an interesting time because advertising attracted immigrants and people that might have been a bit different. In the US in the 1950s, ad agencies were all Wasps with the exception of Grey, which was run by a Jewish guy with bright Italian art directors and mostly Jewish and Irish copywriters.

John O’Driscoll: Using that new sort of [informal] English began with the talkies – Jews came from the east coast of the US to the west and founded the movie business. It was a given for some reason. People have said that it’s to do with Yiddish. Jewish people are funny but they never laugh at their own gags. There’s a lot of self-deprecation there, it’s a certain tone.

AM: And suddenly it was the streetwise rather than the bookwise that started to make the running: there was a different tone of voice. When William Bernbach started ddb in New York he had Phyllis Robinson as a copywriter, too. Women had been more used to getting their bottoms pinched rather than their brains picked but that was changing.

JO: At ddb in London we’d get a roll of these Volkswagen ads sent over from New York and we’d get a crowd around and pore over them with a magnifying glass. Do you remember the Apollo moon-landing craft picture with “It’s ugly but it gets you there”? Brilliant. The American ads had that chutzpah Jewish tone of voice, while our English ads had a slightly different tone; David Abbott gave ours a bit more of his own urbane voice and we copied him – he was our lead singer.

AM: It was never quite a formula though, was it? The format of the picture up there and the copy below became almost unchangeable because it was so successful but you clearly couldn’t put anything there. But there was a famous blank ad, “How to do a Volkswagen ad”, that played on how famous the format had become.

JO: An almost blank ad! How’s that for confidence?

AM: What were the techniques, then? What were the tricks?

JO: I can’t give my secrets away, can I? But the tone of voice has to be personal, like you’re talking to someone down the pub. The great copywriter Bob Levenson used to write his copy by addressing it to one person. He’d write, “Dear Charlie,” at the top of the page and then just rub it out at the end and he had his copy.

AM: One rule was that if the headline and the picture say the same thing, one of them is superfluous. There needs to be a little frisson or an aggravation between the two.

JO: They were always unexpected. One thing Volkswagen was famous for was not doing the whole hubristic, boastful advertising with a blonde spread across the bonnet but we did have a bit of fun with that. We did an ad with two girls perched on some big American car’s bonnet – with the big grille and everything – with the line, “Why don’t they ever sit on Volkswagens?” I did another one with the mile clock ticking over to 99,999 while asking underneath, “Will your car ever live to see it?” Good questions.

AM: When I was the client at Volkswagen we – by and large – trusted the agency and wanted guidance, wanted great work. Volkswagen had achieved such success in the US and wasn’t that big in the UK but in this period sales increased dramatically. In those days agencies were like magicians. They’d unveil the ad like a trick. For TV ads, you’d sit in a darkened room and say, “Very nice,” and ask for a bit longer on the pack-shot at the end. Creatives were like film directors, you know? The next time you saw the ad it would be on air.

JO: That was trust. Recently, a ddb client for a major brand turned around and said, “I don’t like this,” and wrote his own ad, chose a bit of music and it’s on air. They’ve gone out of control!

AM: These Volkswagen ads we’re talking about are the offspring of a marriage of trust between a client and an advertising agency. They’re a celebration of that marriage of two organisations that trusted one another. And to be honest Adam & Eve/ddb have still got the Volkswagen account 60 years later and still do good ads.

JO: The tone of voice is still the same. One thing that was very clear was that we were trying to tell one story at a time, trying to parade one quality at a time. Albeit with quite a bit of copy, there was some great writing on those ads. There are two theories, though. I remember going for a job for Charles Saatchi. I showed my work and Charlie said, “No one reads copy,” – very like him considering he’d written the longest copy ever for Ford. John Pearce of cdp [Collett, Dickenson, Pearce] said, “Long copy: doesn’t matter if anyone reads it, at least it means people might think we have something to say.”

AM: When I worked at Volkswagen, the boss there got the receptionist to announce the number of cars sold the previous day over the office tannoy. “Yesterday we sold 3,000 cars. We want to sell 10,000 cars in May.” It went everywhere in the building, not just in the sales department, but it was so motivating.

JO: All sorts of tricks, aren’t there? In terms of the tone of voice, David Abbott said that some people could write a Volkswagen ad and some people couldn’t. He said he knew which creative teams you could give a brief to and who would end up being able to do it successfully. For example, I couldn’t think of a Benson & Hedges gold-box ad in a million years because I just didn’t think that way. The tone of voice was a bit of a gift.

AM: I think you can nudge and teach people a lot of it to be honest. Once you’ve got a good-enough copywriter, you can give him examples of things and he’ll work it out. I try to teach young writers to be chameleons. I was taught by David Abbott and Tony Brignull, the two best British copywriters. Everyone has their own style and there are touchstones but do you have time to tell people to go and read some Raymond Chandler? “Go on, go and buy one of his books, put it on expenses, read a few pages and then come back and rewrite the ad.” What about that?

JO: Well yes, getting copy through some people was like going to the dentist every day.

AM: It changed my life, working on the Volkswagen ads. I went from a life in client-dom to being a creative and it was incredibly rewarding. It is the campaign. When the millennium came and Life and Time magazine all asked what the best advertising campaign of the whole millennium was, everyone said Volkswagen.

JO: People ask if that campaign could have happened with any other car, of course.

AM: The answer is: not really. Other European and British cars tried to sell in the US but failed. The campaigns made it a smart car to buy.

JO: People think they’re clever, these ads, but they’re not. They’re just people saying things.

AM: Oh yeah? Well, they’re lovely to be associated with.

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