Buy This Car

By Sudhir Venkatesh

“Remember those great Volkswagen ads?”
Alfredo Marcantonio, David Abbott, John O’Driscoll
Merrell, $65

Over 100 million people watched the Super Bowl. A recent survey found that 78 percent of viewers are more interested in watching the commercials than the game itself. Not surprising, then, that companies line up to pay the exorbitant fees to advertise during the game — $4.5 million for a 30-second commercial.

Americans weren’t always so enamored of advertisements. For much of the 20th century, ads were a humdrum affair. It was only toward the end of the 1960s that ads made people sit up and take notice. A few upstart advertising agencies shook up the white-collar Madison Avenue establishment with irreverent, in-your-face campaigns like Alka Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” Avis’s “We try harder,” and Wisk’s “Ring around the collar.”

The agency leading the pack was Doyle Dane Bernbach. DDB achieved notoriety with a series of print advertisements for the Volkswagen Beetle. The Beetle wasn’t much to look at, nor was it terribly comfortable or speedy. So DDB poked fun at the car’s demerits. Copy like “Lemon,” “Ugly,” and “Think small” sat alongside a simple picture of the car itself. Campaigns for other VW cars soon followed, all of them quirky and as likely to promote the negative features of the car.

“Remember those great Volkswagen ads?” takes us back to this transformative period in American industry. Filled with hundreds of ads for the Beetle, the VW van, and other cars, the book chronicles DDB’s decades of work on behalf of VW.

We don’t normally think of the 1960s counterculture revolution as a time of upheaval within corporate America. But consumers were growing bored with conventional advertising. Advertising campaigns treated the audience as dupes who would respond to simplistic images and slogans. Mostly white men educated at elite schools and colleges were producing homogenous, cookie-cutter campaigns.

Bill Bernbach, Ned Doyle, and Mac Dane saw an opening. Soon, nothing was sacred. They put copywriters and artists in the same room, they made fun of products, and they took pleasure in surprising clients with unorthodox approaches.

“The irony was, the big agencies’ upright Harvard and Yale graduates were increasingly out of touch with the very people they were trying to influence,” the authors write. “Suddenly, it was the streetwise not the book-wise who were best equipped to communicate with the man on the street.”

VW came calling and DDB broke the rules again. In some VW ads, the viewer could barely make out the car, which was small and tucked away in the corner. Other ads made fun of the company or just presented a list of all the reasons not to buy its products. But there was a method to the madness. Viewers came to expect a consistent aesthetic. The simplicity of the ads gave the impression that the company was transparent and honest. If VW wanted to create a connection with the consumer, they found the right agency to lead the way.

“Remember those great Volkswagen ads?” is an art book, not a history of advertising or even a detailed look at DDB. Don’t expect pages of text or lengthy interviews. A brief introduction gives way to chapters filled with smartly produced advertisements. The well-designed layout and the crisp photos will take you back to a time when ads were smart, thoughtful, and entertaining.

Sudhir Venkatesh is a professor of sociology at Columbia University who lives part time in East Hampton. His books include “Gang Leader for a Day” and, most recently, “Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy.”

“Remember those great Volkswagen ads?” is out in a new edition. It features the late Julian Koenig of Bridgehampton, the copywriter on the “Think small” ad campaign, voted the best of the 20th century by Advertising Age magazine.