When Volkswagen handed its Boston-based agency the assignment for an advertising relaunch of the Volkswagen Beetle -- the fondly-remembered pint-sized car whose original ad campaign, created by Doyle Dane Bernbach, is widely regarded as the benchmark for great consumer product advertising -- the client seemed to be setting the agency up for a fall. How could Arnold (heretofore regarded as a solid middling creative agency, not a cutting-edge hot shop) possibly compete with the ghost of Bernbach and the legend of "Lemon?"
But here's the lemon twist: Since the New Beetle campaign broke last month, Arnold has been riding high (it even managed to get itself purchased at a premium price), and seems to have earned new admiration in creative circles. The new Beetle campaign, which neatly combines touches of the old DDB simplicity with a contemporary sensibility, has gotten largely favorable reviews from ad critics, while impressing many in advertising's Bernbach-worshiping ad community.
"They're taking the advertising that was done years ago and putting a new spin on it," says Jack Mariucci, a former creative director at DDB Needham when that agency produced the "Fahrvergnugen" campaign for VW. "I think that's exactly what they should have done." Another top creative director who once worked on Volkswagen (and asked to remain nameless) says of the new campaign: "This shit is terrific. The hard thing was to take what we remember of the Beetle and make it pertinent today -- and they did it."
The campaign even draws grudging praise from Roy Grace, now of Grace & Rothschild, who worked on Beetle ads during the glory days of the 1960s and '70s. Asked about the campaign, Grace says: "It's smart. Is it great advertising? I don't think so. But it's good advertising, and I think it's going to work for them."
For Arnold, such praise is particularly welcome because the agency's creative team "knew that everybody was going to be watching this campaign, especially advertising people," says Alan Pafenbach, one of the creative directors on the campaign. "And we expected people to be skeptical about our work -- after all, the old Beetle work is the gold standard of advertising." As Arnold's chief creative officer Ron Lawner points out, it wasn't just the old DDB advertising that was intimidating -- it was the history of the car itself. "The Beetle is so much a part of the American culture. That alone was enough to be anxious about," Lawner believes.
Arnold wisely decided that it wouldn't get too caught up in competing with the past. "There's a sense of responsibility or stewardship that goes with doing advertising for this car," says Pafenbach, "but even though we respect that history, we knew we couldn't dwell on it."
Lance Paull, another creative director on the campaign, acknowledges that he did "go back and look at some of the old ads, to take note of the tone and the manner. But we didn't want to think of this campaign as an extension of the old one."
That was important because VW saw the target audience for the new Bug as younger people -- most of whom never saw the old VW advertising, and who have no desire to relive the '60s. "Nostalgia wasn't going to be enough to sell this car to the youth market," says Pafenbach. "We had to bring the Beetle into the present."
One of the ways the commercials do that is through music. The spots feature quirky, alternative rock samples, from fringe bands like Spiritualized, Hurricane #1 and Fluke. When the agency tested the spots with college students, the spots scored high for their musical hipness quotient. Meanwhile, the production company, Manifesto, and director Nick Lewin managed to work in some state-of-the-art special effects, as with the spot showing Beetles spinning down from above, with the line, "Reverse engineered from UFOs."
Still, in visual terms, the campaign is rooted in a very simple principle: The car is the star. Lawner says that when he and the creative team first laid eyes on the redesigned Bug, "it just made us smile." And the creatives decided that the mere sight of the car had a power of its own, and didn't need much dressing up. "Probably the most important thing we had to do was get out of the way of the car," Lawner believes.
Jeffrey Frankel, executive producer at Manifesto, describes the commercials as "pure advertising -- as opposed to little movies." He's right. In a time in which cars ads have been focusing more and more on quirky characters and scenarios, a la Nissan and Isuzu, it's almost refreshing to see commercials that return to worshiping the car itself.
By taking this simple, classic approach, the ads ended up harking back to the old DDB work in a number of ways -- though it wasn't necessarily intentional, says Lawner. For example, the Arnold team wanted the colorful bugs to pop off the page or screen, and so the cars were placed, by themselves, against a white background -- which bears a resemblance to the minimalist look of some of Helmut Krone's original ads. Lawner says the design of the ads was not an attempt to copy Krone, though the ads do use the classic VW advertising typeface. "I think we ended up in a similar place in terms of clean, simple design, because that is what the Beetle cries out for -- both now and then," Lawner says. Still, he acknowledges that "all of us in advertising have that campaign in our collective consciousness, so it's hard to really say how much I was influenced by it." Says Grace: "Whether it was intentional or not, they certainly look similar to the old ads."
Lawner wanted to avoid paying too much homage to the old VW ads, but the agency did come up with one ad that is an obvious reference to the classics: a green Beetle, with the headline, "Lime." "That was my little nod to that campaign," says Lawner. Adds Pafenbach: "We figured one ad like that was enough."
The agency felt it was more important to refer to memorable characteristics of the car itself. And that included poking fun at some of the inadequacies of the old Beetle, with headlines like: "0-60? Yes." and "Comes with wonderful new features. Like heat." As Pafenbach notes, "People actually loved the old car partly because of its mechanical foibles." (Take that, Yugo!)
John Butler, CD at Butler Shine & Stern, says that refreshing honesty is part of what makes the campaign work. "By playing off the inadequacies of the old Beetle, the ads come across as very truthful," he says. Meanwhile, those admissions don't work against the new car, because the campaign makes it very clear that the new Beetle has a lot more engineering behind it, with headlines such as "Less flower, more power."
Paul Spencer, who worked on the VW account while at Berlin Wright Cameron a few years back, says he was surprised that Arnold was permitted to refer to the Beetle's heritage. "When I worked on Volkswagen, you weren't supposed to mention the old Beetle, or anything to do with the past," Spencer says. "I don't think they realized what they had going for them in terms of fond memories. They would tell us, 'Young people don't care about the past.' But I don't think that's true. There's more generational sharing of ideas now, and everyone knows about the Beetle and what it represented." Spencer says the campaign neatly manages to remind younger people what the old car stood for with retro references, but at the same time makes it clear that the new Beetle "is different -- so the idea is, it's back, but this time it's for you, not your parents."
Whether that message works will become clear in coming months. But it's easy to see how the Beetle could become a hot commodity, particularly among trendy car buyers such as college kids. Of course, that might have happened regardless of Arnold's efforts; the updated version of the car is so visually appealing and impossibly cute that, as Grace says, "you take one look at it and you just want to put it in your pocket and take it home." But the consensus is that Arnold's work certainly won't hurt. No one is suggesting it's in the same ballpark as DDB's classic work; as Mariucci notes, the original Beetle campaign represented an entirely new creation, whereas Arnold's is more like a fresh take on an old idea. Nevertheless, it's good to see Arnold hit one out of the infield -- particularly since, as Grace says, in updating DDB's legendary Beetle creative,