Commentary by Randall Rothenberg


A History of the 'Strange Mutations' of the Volkswagen Beetle

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Whenever I think of Phil Patton as a design writer, I realize he's done some of my favorite business reporting. But when I try to define him as a business writer, I recall his groundbreaking book on UFO enthusiasts. This in an odd way leads to perhaps the best way to identify his metier: He is our leading sociologist of the open road -- unsurprisingly, the two-word title of his first book.

Whether the highway is interstate or interplanetary, whether the journey encompasses the nooks of the American mind or the crannies of our culture, Mr. Patton, whose byline has graced The New York Times, Esquire, Wired and many books, has made the drive (at least metaphorically) and regaled us in the retelling.

Advertising's favorite car
His latest trip involves a car -- the ad industry's favorite auto, in fact. He has just released Bug: The Strange Mutations of the World's Most Famous Automobile, a history of the engineering, design and advertising of Volkswagen. Unlike earlier VW Beetle chronicles, focused on the improbable 20-year, Doyle Dane Bernbach-aided journey of the "people's car" from Nazi Germany to suburban New Rochelle, Mr. Patton's book, from Simon & Schuster, brings the story up to date, recounting the development and marketing of the New Beetle that's become a Generation Y icon.

"The two models," Mr. Patton writes, "provide an object lesson in the way images and ideas mutate through a culture." The Old and New Beetles show "how an impersonal universal design becomes an object of such personal attachment." Indeed, for marketing people, Bug is a case study that can accompany The Tipping Point or The Cluetrain Manifesto, for it helps explain how we as consumers, in our own minds and hands, turn the ephemera of mass production into the stuff of individual affection.

Design, engineering, utility
Mr. Patton says there is something ineluctable about the combination of great design, engineering and utility that can build a product even without marketing support. "Helmut Krone had a VW in 1951," he told me over a recent lunch, referring to the late, great art director who designed Doyle Dane's original, legendary Beetle print ads. "And that was the point: People discovered the car on their own, and the ads -- which didn't start until '59 -- ratified the process of discovery."

The process also works in reverse. Advertising can prepare the audience for a discovery. As evidence, Mr. Patton notes Arnold Worldwide's contemporary "Drivers wanted" campaign began well before the New Beetle was launched. Spots like "Sunday Afternoon" (the marvelous "da da da" spot) featured VW's Golf. But, by trafficking in a combination of youthful world-weariness, sexual ambiguity, ironic wit and terrific sound tracks, the campaign touched a generational chord, successfully positioning the overall VW brand as a choice for people in their 20s (and second-car buyers who'd like to be).

'Folk culture'
Proof of VW's revival, Mr. Patton believes, can be found in the customization craze that's broken out spontaneously around the New Beetle, as it did around its predecessor. "It's developed its own folk culture," he said. "Most of the people doing it have only the vaguest memory of the Old Beetle." His own favorite is a Beetle he saw in the Bronx, whose owner, a DJ named Ted Smooth, had spray-painted his own portrait on the hood.

Mr. Patton has even attended a New Beetle festival in, of all places, Roswell, N.M. Proving, one suspects, that the truth about consumerism really is out there.

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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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