How Adolf Hitler’s Ideal Car Became an American Favorite: A Visual Analysis of the Volkswagon Beetle

By Nicholas R. Salas
Guest Blog Post

DDD_HowAdolfHitlersIdealCarBecameAnAmericanFavorite_LemonAdHelmut Krone was considered a pioneer in the advertising industry, and he is also responsible for the advertisement that will be analyzed in this paper. Krone’s goal was to create an advertising look that was substantially different than what was being done by his peers. In an interview with the New York Times in 1969, Krone said, “great advertising really has to be talked about by people and become part of the national scene” (Times 1). The advertisement he created in 1960 for the Volkswagen Beetle did just this. The campaign that Krone created with this simple advertisement “ushered in the era of modern advertising by promoting a ‘position’ or ‘unique selling proposition’ designed to associate each brand with a specific idea in the reader or viewer’s mind” (Server 2).

Why was this advertisement so successful? How could Volkswagen sell Adolf Hitler’s favorite car to an American public only a mere decade and a half after World War II? These are questions that can only be answered with good design and advertising principles and questions that will be answered throughout the course of this study. To understand the impact of this particular advertisement and its effect on the American public, it is important to take a glimpse into the history of the Volkswagen Beetle and why its origins are relevant to the success of its advertising.

Believe it or not, Adolf Hitler actually conceptualized the idea of the Beetle in 1924 while trying to solve Germany’s unemployment issue. He wanted to mass-produce a car that the average person would be able to afford on a modest income. The final first draft of the Beetle was finalized in 1938, and after a brief production period, World War II ended, and this production was brought to an end. In April 1934, Hitler contacted Ferdinand Porsche to create a new model of the Beetle in 10 months. Hitler specified all of the criteria that the car must meet. For example, he wanted the car to have a top speed of 62 mph, have an air-cooled engine, achieve 42 miles per gallon, and be able to transport 2 adults and 3 children (Server 1). These specific yet simple requirements were important to the beginnings of the Beetle. Although the specifications of the car have evolved over the years, the concept of simplicity has not.

In May of 1981, the 20 millionth Beetle was produced in Mexico. In 1991 the Beetle was acclaimed the Car of the Century, an accolade awarded by a panel of 100 motoring journalists from 37 different countries (Consumer Guide 3). What makes the Beetle so unique is the unusual and controversial conception. After all, this vehicle was the brainchild of possibly the most evil man in our history, and later redesigned by one of the most famous and respected car designers, Ferdinand Porsche. More amazing is that the design has not changed much over the course of more than 50 years. All of the unique history of the Beetle helped launch its originality and appeal in the United States. What drew the American people to the car was the way it was advertised to them through design.

While the Detroit auto market was designing large cars with many accessories, the Beetle remained familiar in its simplicity. Echoed in the campaign for the car, the advertising agency where Krone was employed at the time, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), utilized a “minimalist approach to selling that related to the reader on a personal level” (Coleman 1). DDB wanted Volkswagen to be seen as a corporation with a face not trying to get the buyer to spend more money, but as a company that is held to a higher standard than other automobile producers. Volkswagen was successful in their efforts, and DDB was equally successful in creating this advertisement that is still revered today as an ingenious piece that created exceptionally high revenue for Volkswagen.

This advertisement is unique because it is able to successfully communicate a message with both an image and accompanying text. Roland Barthes, in his article titled, “The Photographic Message,” mentions that text, when given in context with an image, becomes parasitic. He believes that the text should not describe the image. This task should be left up to the image and the image alone. (25) The Volkswagen advertisement being analyzed breaks the traditional theory proposed by Barthes. Not only does the text help explain the image, but it gives credibility to it, and allows the reader to become more engaged by putting a story behind the image that otherwise might not be implied. In this way, the text below the image, describing how careful Volkswagen is to detail, enhances the viewers’ experience and creates an emotion. The text below the image of a plain black Beetle reads:

“This Volkswagen missed the boot. The chrome strip on the glove compartment is blemished and must be replaced. Chances are you wouldn’t have noticed it; Inspector Kurt Kroner did. There are 3,389 men at our Wolfsburg factory with only one job: to inspect Volkswagens at each sate of production. 13,000 Volkswagens are produced daily; there are more inspectors as cars. Every shock absorber is tested (spot checking won’t do), every windshield is scanned. VWs have been rejected for surface scratches very visible to the eye.. Final inspection is really something! VW inspectors run each car off the line onto the Funktionsprufstand (car test stand), tote up 189 check points, gun ahead to the automatic brake stand, and say ‘no’ to one VW out of fifty. This preoccupation with detail means the VW lasts longer and requires less maintenance, by and large, than other cars do. It also means a used VW depreciates less than any other car. We pluck the lemons; you get the plums” (Kattan 1).

Print advertisements for this campaign were based on the idea of filling the visual field with white space and a small image of the Beetle. The idea behind this was to emphasize the simplicity and minimalism of the vehicle (CYMK 4). As viewers, this was seen as an appealing characteristic at the time when muscle cars were popular, yet expensive and out of reach in affordability and practicality for most Americans. This advertisement was effective on a visual level because the contrast of empty space “caused the image in close proximity to immediately pop from the page, independent of its size and color.” In this way, simplicity ruled.

At this time in American history, commercial photography was in its infancy and was actually not preferred when it came to capturing the true essence of an automobile. The majority of automotive images were multiple illustrated artworks featuring all the exciting features of the vehicle. These advertisements were visually colorful and made to stand out amongst other advertisements. Every automobile advertisement at the time relayed themes meant to be catchy and exciting. For example, Oldsmobile proclaimed, “You’ve got to drive it to believe it,” and Buick promised,” You can make your someday come true now” (CMYK 2). By breaking these conventions, Volkswagen was successful in capturing the attention of the American public. The simple techniques of this advertisement (no color, no catchy phrases and no big headlines) were refreshing for those looking to be different and break away from conventions.

One design characteristic about the Beetle that was also appealing to Americans at the time was the overall shape of the car. Referring to the Beetle, Hitler said, “It should look like a Beetle, you should have to look to nature to find out what streamlining is.” (Server 1) The rounded edges of the vehicle imitated the look of the Beetle in nature, and were therefore true in its description of the title. Also, we learn from Molly Bang in her book titled, “How Pictures Work,” that “curved shapes embrace us and protect us. Curved surfaces make us feel more secure . . because of our association with these shapes.” (71) This is relevant because at the time of this advertisement, the muscle cars that were being advertised were made to look more sleek and aerodynamic, therefore integrating more pointed shapes and directional lines. These vehicles appealed to the risk taker and the daredevil, while the Beetle maintained its family-oriented appeal by emphasizing safety and reliability.

There is a true argumentative purpose that this advertisement was trying to create, and that is that as a consumer, you could still be satisfied and trendy in a vehicle that was designed for the simple life. Also, its purpose was to create a feeling of safety by emphasizing the fact that Volkswagen had no issue in throwing away a car if its features were not found to be perfect and flawless. In the advertisement, honesty was at the forefront. In it, Volkswagen wanted to create a feeling of trust. “Everything about it had to be honest, transparent and straightforward. The advertising was the most important piece of truth created” (Kattan 2).

Did this advertisement work? Was it able to reach the number of Americans intended to create a lasting brand? Rebecca Coleman, in her article titled “Lemon” said:

“This ad has stood the test of time and will be remembered for many generations as a breakthrough in product to consumer relations. The ads before utilized clichés, a hammer pounding on a head to sell headache medicine, or a toy in a cereal box, but DDB created a better way. Logic and over-analysis can immobilize and sterilize an idea. By not over thinking an advertisement but by changing the way you think about that advertisement, it would yield more successful results” (2).

The campaign was a success. Beetle sales rose 25% in the years immediately following the release of this advertisement. The design of the advertisement can be linked directly to sales and public approval. The design choice of this advertisement, although unconventional at the time, and extremely risky, proved to be a cultural change to the image of the Volkswagen Beetle. To this day, Volkswagen has been able to maintain their image of simplicity through advertising and design.

Works Cited

Bang, Molly. Picture This: How Pictures Work. Boston: Bullfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company, 1991.

Barthes, Roland. Image Music Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

Coleman, Rebecca. “www.writingfordesigners.com. “ Writing for Designers. George Mason University. March 2009. Web. June 2013.

Kattan, Omar. “ www.brandstories.net.“ The VW Beetle Story: A Lesson in Brand Persona Development. Brand Stories, 2009. Web. June 2013.

Consumer Guide. “www.howstuffworks.com.” 1960-1969 Volkswagen Beetle. Discovery. June 2008. Web. June 2013.

CYMK, Life. “ www.lifeincmyk.wordpress.com. “ Think Small or How the Way We Make Ads Was Changed Forever. September 2011. Web. June 2013.

New York Times. “www.articles.sun-sentinel.com.” H. Krone, Created Volkswagen ‘Lemon’ Ad Campaign. Sun Sentinel. April 1996. Web. June 2013.

Server, Freed. “www.vsvwa.com/bug.” A Brief History of the Beetle. Free Server. May 2011. Web. June 2013.