The ads that broke the mould

When a boy from the Bronx got together with VW, writes Paul McCann, advertising became an art with creativity at its heart

Paul McCann
Sunday 31 May 1998 23:02 BST

The hype surrounding Nicole, Papa and that wedding last week notwithstanding, the best car advert, in fact the best advert, on television at the moment is, as usual, a Volkswagen ad.

The array of people holding truth-telling signs, from the be-suited businessman on a bench holding the sign "At weekends my name is Mandy", to the sea- sick fisherman, maintains a standard of VW advertising that has for 40 years been both remarkably high and remarkably consistent.

It is not just the smiling, obsessive German engineer, checking out Passat door locks, or the "Polo price tag as hiccup-cure" of recent months that prove that Volkswagen advertising is at the top of its field.

In the Eighties the dinner-jacketed roue who lost everything at Monte Carlo and Paula Hamilton's fur-coat throwing yuppie were perfectly of their time and remain lodged in the consumer's consciousness.

And for those who are old enough, Bert Kwouk and the Volkswagen Golf dropping out of the sky is as much an icon of the late Seventies as Sid Vicious.

But the roots to this remarkable heritage of advertising lie even further back with a man who, in an industry quick to proclaim the next hot thing, has remained the mould-breaker, the innovator and legend of the trade: Bill Bernbach.

"These days advertising agencies, according to the media image of the Nineties, are exceedingly hip places," says Tony Cox, creative director of BMP DDB, Volkswagen's advertising agency for the past 40 years. "But in the Fifties things were very different. Then Madison Avenue, the centre of American advertising, was known as `Ulcer Gulch'. It was a shrine of conformity. American ad men were hopeless yes-men. Dedicated to affirming their clients' every whim."

Madison Avenue was in those days also almost exclusively the preserve of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant middle classes - think Darren and his boss from the TV series Bewitched. Into this world came Bernbach, a Jewish ex-post room boy from the Bronx.

Unlike the technicians of the day who believed that advertising was a science that had rules - you put people in every ad and use short sentences - Bernbach founded an agency on the belief that it was an art with creativity at its heart. This is hardly revolutionary now, but it led to advertising for the Volkswagen Beetle that created a "personality" for the car that helped make it the best-selling car in history.

"Bernbach got to grips with how the VW Beetle represented the changing climate of the times," says Tony Cox. "The cold war thawed, society became open to new ideas, young people became more idealistic, more environmentally conscious - men grew their hair, women burned their bras and a stream of great commercials began to appear from DDB New York."

The original Bernbach ads used self-deprecating humour for the first time in the history of car ads. Before the rule had always been for macho self-congratulation. The car as extension of both the phallus and the American dream. Instead, the VW Beetle was given a personality that exuded "friendly straightforwardness" and "disarming honesty" in the words of Tony Cox.

The really remarkable thing about Volkswagen advertising is that even today car ads remain the least creatively inspiring of any industry. It is currently the biggest-spending sector and ad agencies still largely do what the manufacturer tells them. And having spent millions on the development and design of a car's body styling the manufacturer usually says "Give me plenty of shots of the body".

This explains the advertising cliche of the car on the curving open road. Usually filmed in Scotland, under a lowering sky with some chisel-jawed hunk at the wheel, these ads register not a blip on the consumer memorability scale - but they do allow for lots of shots of the car's body.

This need for the car to be the star interferes with an ad agency's attempts at humour - which is the generous interpretation of why the Renault Megane "car-talking-to-driver" adverts are so lame. In contrast VW, for its part, recently had the confidence to run an ad that at no point showed the car at all. In "Gas Station" two New Mexico-style hicks discuss the strange UFO apparition that passed by without needing petrol. It was identifiable only by the strange sign on it that looked "Kinda like a Vee and a Dublyer".

What Berbach realised before anyone else, and what has maintained the high standard of VW ads ever since, was that being ironic about selling to the public was a really successful way to sell to the public.

"This insight has become the basis of many subsequent advertising campaigns," says Cox. "Indeed you can hear papers about it delivered at every advertising convention you go to - nowadays its usually called post-modernism."

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