Was it the arms race, culminated by Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative, that bankrupted the command economy? Was it the ultimate moral bankruptcy of communism itself, finally collapsing under the weight of totalitarian evil? Or, as we increasingly suspect, was the end of the Eastern bloc directly attributable to simple neighborhood dynamics in the global village?
The Iron Curtain could keep people in, but it couldn't keep news of the consumer society out. When, through broadcast and video, the people in the East realized what was being advertised to and purchased by their neighbors in the West, the fraud of Marxist rhetoric was at last all too evident. Thus, defensively, Gorbachev unveiled glasnost. In short order, the Berlin Wall came down, Ceaucescu was shot like a dog and McDonald's was serving Big Mac's in the shadow of the Kremlin from each according to his work station to each according to his ability to pay.
Yes, you can make a reasoned argument that advertising saved the world for democracy. At the very least-if the first-ever TV spot from DDB Needham, Budapest, is any indication-the enslaved masses were paying close attention to how good advertising is done.
The spot, for Volkswagen, opens with a b&w shot of a vintage Beetle tooling along a country road toward the camera.
"In 1967," says a voice-over, "Mr. John Smith buys the first car of his life."
Then, still in b&w, comes a newsreel montage of what has transpired since: in 1968, Russian tanks in Prague; in 1969, man on the moon; 1974, the Rubik's Cube; 1977, the death of Elvis(?); 1987, the emergence of Gorbachev; 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so on, leading to the present. Now we see the 27-year-old VW next to a new VW Golf, with John Smith standing between them.
"In 1994," says the voice-over, "Mr. John Smith buys the second car of his life: a Volkswagen Golf. If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen."
Though in Hungary a fledgling incorporation of market economics long predated the total defeat of communism, the advertising of Western goods is still essentially in its infancy. But you couldn't tell from this spot, which manages to accomplish everything a TV ad needs to do.
The introduction of John Smith and his old car piques the viewers' curiosity. The riveting newsreel keeps our attention. And the payoff is a simple but elegant testament to the powerful selling idea: that the world can go topsy-turvy around us, but the utterly dependable Volkswagen endures.
That the durability of a VW should be dramatized by documenting the passage of time is merely a clever advertising idea. That the watershed images include such triumphs of Western civilization as the moon landing and Elvis is high irony. The very fact that the images have meaning and resonance to Hungarians is proof that the Iron Curtain failed sufficiently to isolate its inhabitants from the world outside.
But, as we said, it wasn't only broadcast news that seeped through. It was also broadcast advertising, and in that sense there is something missing from the historical montage sequence that would have fully closed this intriguing circle. That missing element?
An outtake, of course, from a Volkswagen commercial.
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