Advertising: When the Volkswagen Beetle ploughed its own furrow

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The Independent Online

It's happened again: another ghost in the machine, another old commercial on my tape. But this time it isn't just representative - a perky fmcg ad with a unique selling point and a jingle. It's a classic - something I know because it's in all the 100 best show reels and the books, something that justifies advertising to its own people.

It's an American commercial for Volkswagen made in the very early 1960s, dreamt up and written by the adman's adman, The Master, Bill Bernbach of Doyle Dane Bernbach.

The People's Car was developed in 1930s Germany under Ferdinand Porsche, provoked by a speech from Hitler in 1934 (there's a whole chapter on the development of the Volkswagen brand in Wally Olins' brilliant new book, On Brand). It was just about ready at the back end of 1939. After the war, the VW established itself as the world's most popular car over the decade (1948-58).

The people who first picked up on the VW in 1950s America were academics and what Mr Olins describes as "the thoughtful middle-class". The VW Beetle represented their values in the most obvious possible way, by being wildly different from the extravagant showy monsters designed by Harley Earl in Detroit.

Bernbach's advertising targeted these people brilliantly, emphasising the VW's lovable dog-like simplicity and reliability. Its Authenticity.

That's why the commercial looks very filmic, like a snatch from a European black and white art film of the period. And that's why it's about the snowplough man, one of those anonymous heroes you depend on when the world is really up against it and Ivy League academics could freeze to death in their snowbound hulks in upstate Connecticut (think The Ice Storm).

The snowplough man comes out of his house, his big boots lit by a shaft of light from the door (I told you it was filmic - and we never see the rest of him either). And the headlamps light up on his Volkswagen. And he's off across lovely empty frozen wastes, where all you can see is telegraph poles.

The voiceover - wry, civilised, a voice wearing a black and white imported Irish tweed jacket and corduroy trousers - says: "Have you ever wondered how the man who drives the snowplough drives to the snowplough. This one drives a Volkswagen. So you can stop wondering!"

Wobbling across this grey-white lost world, the VW/St Bernard makes it to the snowplough shed. More boots, more lights on, more engine noise and drifts shovelled up by brute force. And as the snowplough passes, there's the unforgettable final shot of the VW looking tiny and adorable in the snow.

No one involved in this heroic redemption could have dreamt that it would go on to hippies, Herbie and the late 1990s retro Barbie Beetle.

Peter@sru.co.uk

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