Josh Pitzalis

Truth in the face of insincerity

In the late 1950s, automobile advertising was a dark art.

The subtle effect of these campaigns was to coerce Americans to work longer hours and sacrifice more to step up the ladder from a Chevrolet to a Buick to an Oldsmobile and one day, God willing, to the ultimate automobile, the Cadillac.

Climbing the automobile ladder was hard work, and staying on top was even harder. Each year, employing the practice of perceived obsolescence, Chevrolet would roll out an entirely redesigned, and usually larger, model. A car that had been the height of fashion yesterday would look small, embarrassing, and worn-out tomorrow.

Then in 1959, seemingly out of nowhere, simple full-page newspaper ads began to appear with an unadorned image of the Volkswagen Beetle and the headline “Think Small.”

The ad didn’t say much more, except that the car was modest and efficient. It even called the Beetle a “flivver”, contemporary slang for a piece of junk.

People found the ads shockingly honest and hilarious, allowing them to publicly express an unnamed anxiety that marketers had been instilling in them for years.

The effectiveness of these ads has been endlessly chronicled, and fifty years later it is still widely considered the stand-alone best marketing campaign of the twentieth century, number one on the Ad Age list.

The campaign does not owe its success to offbeat creativity or its celebrated use of white space on the page. The power of the new story VW was telling began at its core, with its values. While Cadillac was celebrating an endless quest for status and wealth, VW celebrated joyful modesty of material desire and truth in the face of insincerity.

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This story is from Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs

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