General Marketing

Lemon: Volkswagen Ad that Forever Changed America

Toni Koraza
April 18, 2022
Lemon: Volkswagen Ad that Forever Changed America

David Ogilvy, as one of the greatest minds of modern advertising, couldn’t stomach one-word headlines, but he couldn’t deny the power of the Think Small campaign either.

“The famous headline Lemon contributed a lot to the success of Volkswagen in America.” — Ogilvy on Advertising

“Lemon.” is a one-word headline from the Think Small campaign that draws attention for its self-deprecating humor and absurdity. The headline is not just short. It also features a full stop, which is unusual for any headline, even today.

Lemon. (a defective foreign car)

Today, Volkswagen cars are as American as apple pies, thanks to the Think Small and Lemon campaigns. The story of the greatest rebranding in history starts with two headlines.

What we’ll cover:

The Volkswagen Ad That Changed America’s Automobile Industry

Driving a Nazi-made car was ludicrous in 1958, but sitting behind the same wheel only a year later was considered having good taste in four-wheelers.

America was in love with stylish Detroit cars back then, and driving American vehicles on American roads was coincidental with freedom. Today, BMWs, Porsches, Volkswagens, and Mercedes dominate international markets and are sometimes praised as everything good in the automobile industry.

Volkswagen Group is the umbrella company for some of the most popular car brands in the U.S., including Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Porsche, Ducati, Golf, and others.

Volkswagen is also behind most cars on U.S. roads. The largest market for German-produced cars is, yes, you guessed it, North America.

How did the company founded by one of America’s greatest enemies find love among the American people?

many oranges arranged on a yellow paper

“Think small.”

Adolf Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche set up a car manufacturing factory in Wolfsburg in May 1933. The genius automaker and a cunning politician choose the name Volkswagen — the people’s car — for the new company.

Soon after, the Volkswagen Beetle comes hot off the track in 1938, signaling a new time in German history.

Volkswagen's story begins in all the wrong ways

Fast forward to 1959, and America is enjoying the golden age of its economy. The booming business is taking the world by storm. Young families in the U.S. are buying cars faster than manufacturers can produce them.

Wall Street is churning out new investment companies. Detroit is a synonym for style, Hollywood is an international sensation, and one place north of Manhattan’s 23rd Street is about to turn America head over heels for something new and different.

The Boys From Madison Avenue in the 1950s

The advertising business is in its infancy at the time, and ad men search for ways to communicate better products to larger consumer bases.

Carl Hahn, head of Volkswagen, calls Bill Bernbach of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), wanting to sell the Volkswagen Beetle in the United States.

DDB finds itself in an impossible situation. The Lemon Laws are strongly enforced in the United States to warrant certain quality on American roads. And Carl Hahn’s car, designed with Hitler’s personal oversight, is a hard sell for American socialites post World War II.

Automobile advertisement from early 1960s.
Source: SenseiAlan / Status-driven advertisement from 1961

Luckily for Carl Hahn, in 1959, DDB was the right company for the job.

The Madison Avenue agencies relied on two fundamental concepts to sell more cars in the 1950s.

  1. Ponder USP in every ad — repeat the unique selling preposition — what makes your product different from others?
  2. Appeal to status — include the perceived social status your prospect gets when they buy your product.

The purpose of advertising was to drive sales and improve bottom lines.

Automobile ads became overly repetitive, and the status anxiety grew among potential buyers. Men would feel less socially desirable for not having the latest car models.

The advertising industry needed a new approach, and Bill Bernbach saw an opportunity to create a cultural phenomenon. Bernbach believed a singular and creative idea should be at the center of an advertisement.

From his company’s manifesto:

“Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.” — Bernbach

old photo of a volkswagen and old cars display o black background
Volkswagen's Lemon Ads

“Lemon” - Volkswagen Ad

Bill Bernbach saw creativity as an unfair advantage a company can use against its competition, while other advertising agencies relied exclusively on cold research and focus groups.

When Carl Hahn first visited Madison Avenue, he couldn’t hide his disappointment with bland and overused mockups he received from top agencies. The agencies would conduct immense research and develop ad mockups that showed families admiring the Beetle in driveways.

Carl Hahn had a fresh encounter at the DDB’s agency and was struck by Bernbach’s honesty. Ben Bernbach had zero mockups, concepts, and ideas to offer, blaming it on the lack of personal familiarity with the product.

Instead, Bernbach and Hahn went through a catalog of his previous campaigns. Hahn liked DDB’s advertising approach and a bond formed between the two men. Carl Hahn found fresh energy on Madison Avenue and signed a $600,000 contract with DDB.

Not everyone was thrilled about selling “the Führer’s car” at DDB, and Bill Bernbach faced challenges with both managers and copywriters. Initially, the teams inside DDB wanted to present the Beetle in the same fashion as all other agencies, promising a status boost to potential prospects.

Finally, Helmut Krone accepted the challenge to design the ads, and Julian Koenig sat behind a typewriter to write the copy.

The two men had a different idea

DDB finally approved the first two ads after grueling back and forth inside the agency.

  • Headlines featured a full stop — it forced the reader to stop and think about the ad for a second longer. Headlines usually attract the reader to read the first line and rarely ever feature a final interpunction.
  • Black and white ad pages — Volkswagen couldn’t afford a color print, which proved to be to their advantage when Life magazine published the ads. The magazine pages were colorful, and Volkswagen’s pictures created a remarkable effect.
  • Self-deprecating humor — Exacerbated self-importance and perceived social status drove the car sales at the time. Self-deprecating humor created Volkswagen’s brand image of honesty and simplicity.
  • Awkward logo position — Volkswagen’s logo is unnaturally placed between the second and the third column, supplementing the self-deprecating humor.

“It’s Ugly But It Gets You There” - Volkswagen Ad

The initial campaigns were successful. Volkswagen became a social phenomenon, and office workers discussed it around water-coolers, teenagers had it on their bedroom walls, and families adopted the change with their next car purchases.

The ad bridged the gap between the research data and the real world. The Volkswagen Beetle became the people's true car and not just another metal pet for CEOs and men with boosted egos.

The campaign ignited a creative revolution that changed the way the world felt about advertising, marketing, and promotion.

DDB and Volkswagen continued creating great ads in the upcoming years, fueling the age in American history. The following headlines would still get giggles and positive reaction today:

“It’s Ugly But It Gets You There”

“If You Run Out of Gas, It’s Easy to Push”

“Live Below Your Means”

Shaking up the advertising world helped Volkswagen find its place in American hearts and forever change the automobile industry.

DDB still handles Volkswagen’s account in some regions, primarily in the UK. And today, Volkswagen is as American as an apple pie.


Written by yours truly, Toni Koraza

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