The Think Small ad turns 50

To understand what an odd ball Volkswagen was in the 1950s just consider the history of that time. America was in the midst of a long expansion—both economically and in the size of individual families. All of this was coming less than a decade and a half after The U.S. defeated Nazi Germany and Japan in what was the most agonizing war of the 20th Century.

Add the swagger of a Detroit-based auto industry that seemed to be on its game. This was the era of the 57 Chevy, ever-growing Ford wagons and huge tail-fins courtesy of Cadillac, Chrysler and others in what then was the “Big 4”. Or was it 5 back then? Longer, lower, wider were design mantras that made some think that future cars would eat up a full two lanes somewhere by the time the 70s rolled around. Environmentalism had yet to emerge. And it would be at least a decade and a half before mideast oil cartels would pursue their own version of the “American Dream” resulting in nightmarishly long gas pump lines  for the rest  of us. 

So, looking back to 1959 and it’s easy to envision that the American auto-buying public was probably not “thinking small.” Then in rolls this little "flivver" from Germany. The Volkswagen, originally conceived as the German “Peoples Car” had a tiny, rear-mounted, air-cooled engine. It was short, narrow and looked like a bug--though the nickname “Beetle” had yet to catch on. It had been in the U.S. a few years and was getting past novelty status.

Doyle Dane Bernbach’s job as ad agency was to make The VWs tiny virtues more mainstream. And it did so with what then was an unusual step for an advertising agency. It was direct and honest. It even tended to undersell the product by urging a power- and sheet metal-hungry America to "Think Small." 

The Think Small approach is listed by Ad Age as the #1 campaign of at least the last 100 years. It was the first  of a long  series of VW ads that were refreshingly direct. Later ads even mocked the car’s appearance. One referred to the car as “ugly.” The Think Small ad helped establish a very strong automotive segment we would come to know as the "economy car." And today. some of Volkswagen's economy cars are  selling for more than $20,000. 

In 1959, the Think Small ad's design made a high art of minimalism. Copy was clear, simple, easy to read. Volkswagen was quite proud of its economy and simplicity yet very artful in communicating that pride. 

Look at the ad. Read the ad. It’s an approach that still seems fresh today. All of which proves that getting the B.S. out of your communications is probably the most important first step an advertiser can take.

Click here for a site with full ad and copy.