The ads are over 50 years old. But their simplicity and wit still make every copywriter and art director jealous.

In fact, the campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle—produced in the 1960s and early ’70s—is considered the most creative, most influential and, last but not least, most effective ever.

After all, it turned the car of Hitler into the car of the Hippies—could advertising ever achieve more?

You wouldn’t find any Jews in the big ad agencies on Madison Avenue

The creative director behind the Volkswagen ads was Bill Bernbach. His family name might not sound peculiar to you. But to the heads of the big advertising agencies in 1950s America, it did.

Bernbach was a Jewish name. And back then, you wouldn’t find any Jews in the big ad agencies on Madison Avenue, almost entirely staffed by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs).

Bill Bernbach’s agency DDB, however, was strikingly multicultural, employing not only Jews, but also Italians, Greeks and other minorities whom, despite their obvious talent, no established Madison Avenue agency would have hired.

Diversity would prove to be DDB’s greatest asset

This diversity would prove to be DDB’s greatest asset. Here’s why: The ‘ethnics’ at DDB were raised in two cultures at once—the Old World culture of their parents, who had emigrated from Europe, and the bustling New York City of the 1950s and 1960s. What was true at home wasn’t necessarily true outside, and vice versa.

From this experience, the copywriters and art directors at DDB developed a healthy dose of skepticism and mental flexibility. They were able to rethink routines and come up with new ways of doing things. They drove change and creativity, and particularly with the Volkswagen campaign.

Right from the start, DDB’s ads did exactly what the oddly shaped car did: they made people talk. VW ads had higher reader scores than cover stories. They were discussed at the water cooler. They were hung up on the wall. Because they were intelligent. Fresh. Interesting. Meaningful. Simple. And yet compelling. That’s why, after the launch of the Volkswagen campaign, advertisers started shifting their budgets from old school Madison Avenue agencies to DDB. The former outsiders became the new insiders.

What’s more, the ‘ethnics’ at DDB not only wanted to change the WASPy advertising of their time, but its WASPy society, too. Their fight against the advertising establishment was also a fight against the political, cultural and moral establishment. And they won. DDB—along with other ‘ethnic’ agencies whose launch it inspired—helped make the U.S. a freer and more colourful place.

A time when advertising wasn’t mostly ignored, but, literally, moved the world … by embracing outsidersClick To Tweet

Fifty years later, the advertising community isn’t interested in social commitment anymore, unless there is a coveted creative award to be won.

Maybe this is the final reason why the Volkswagen campaign is revered to this day: it is the poignant memory of a time when advertising wasn’t mostly ignored, but, literally, moved the world … by embracing outsiders.

Dominik ImsengDiversity & Divergency
The ads are over 50 years old. But their simplicity and wit still make every copywriter and art director jealous. In fact, the campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle—produced in the 1960s and early ’70s—is considered the most creative, most influential and, last but not least, most effective ever. After all, it...
Dominik Imseng
copywriter and author
Dominik works as a copywriter and journalist in Switzerland. In 2016, he published a book on the legendary Volkswagen campaign from the 1960s and early ’70s: “Ugly Is Only Skin-Deep: The Story of the Ads That Changed the World” (Matador). You can find it here: https://volkswagen-ads.com