What Doyle Dane Bernbach has always had in mind concerning the Volkswagen, says Bernbach, "was to tell the truth about the car and to tell it artfully enough so that people would believe it. Telling the truth is easy, but convincing the people you're telling the truth in an advertisement is hard." To be sure it knew the truth, Bernbach and members of his firm went to Wolfsburg in 1959 and inspected the car firsthand. "We asked why the engine was in the back, why the rear wheels were crooked and how many bolts were used to hold on the fender," says Bernbach. "We were impressed by the honest answers we got and by the honest way the car was put together. It seemed clear that what we ought to do was go home and write honest advertisements."
Volkswagen ads, nearly all of which depend on simple, unadorned illustrations of the sedan or station wagon, have been so honest they have often made executives at VWoA choke. Under a glaring blank space an ad once said: "No point showing the '62 Volkswagen. It still looks the same." "Then they showed us the one that said 'Lemon.' " says Paul Lee. "I almost dropped my teeth." The car was a lemon, the ad said quickly, because an inspector named Kurt Kroner had found a blemish on a piece of chrome trim on the glove compartment and he could not, in good conscience, okay the car for export to America. One ad faced a fact there was no escaping: "Do you think the Volkswagen is homely?" it asked. Another ad (for the station wagon) took the beetle by the pinchers when it said, "We also make a funny-looking car" (shudders at VWoA).
Making a case for the boxy station wagon has sometimes called for even more drastic measures of honest self-appraisal. DDB has suggested that, like a turkey with four drumsticks, it's nice but "it looks a little strange at first," and a TV commercial has a station wagon owner say: "Back in '51 we had a Volkswagen sedan. People looked at us as if we had two heads. Now we have a station wagon. People still look at us as if we had two heads."
The agency has also addressed itself to the station wagon's principal opponents: women. "Why won't your wife let you buy this station wagon?" said an ad that hit males where it hurt, and on a softer line offered women a bus-driver's cap for $2,655 with the station wagon thrown in absolutely free. "Now," says Paul Lee, "people are gradually coming around. We admit it looks like a bus. We admit it takes courage to drive one. And once we've admitted to all the objections people have, they start paying attention to the positive things you can do with a station wagon." He meant, for example, that a station wagon, according to a recent ad, can be stuffed with "a package containing 8 pairs of skis, the complete works of Dickens, 98 lbs. of frozen spinach, a hutch used by Grover Cleveland, 80 Hollywood High gym sweaters, a suit of armor, and a full-sized reproduction of the Winged Victory of Samothrace."
Because they sell cars and because of the felicitous phrasing and guileless thought that pervades them, it might be assumed no fault could be found with Volkswagen advertisements. But, some is found, and it is prompted by an unexpected reason. "Some people around here simply think the advertising is maybe too winning, too ingratiating," says a VW executive, "that maybe they convey a feeling that a VW is an infallible machine. Say a man who reads the ads finally goes out and buys a VW. And say he drives it for 40,000 or 50,000 miles, and it breaks down. You know what he may think? He may think he's been betrayed by his best friend. He didn't think a VW could break down. He goes to the man who sold it to him and raises all kinds of Cain. We even had a man call Heinz Nordhoff in Wolfsburg all the way from Kansas. His VW had broken down. It was the middle of the night, he said, and he was stranded. So he called Nordhoff and blessed him out."
So every so often Doyle Dane Bernbach, always thinking, jerks its Volkswagen readers back to reality. Not long ago it showed a VW with a flat tire. The headline—felicitous and guileless—said, "Nobody's perfect."