Futuristic and retro at the same time. Not bad. And thanks to the Bernbachian plain, white background, the car itself jumps boldly, brightly, beautifully, adorably, heroically right out of the picture. Which is no small thing, because the New Beetle is a work-of-art on wheels, a 115 hp advertisement for itself.
So the judges were duly impressed. Yet there was on the panel one voice of uncertainty, who was troubled not because the multimedia campaign from Arnold Communications, Boston, isn't superb -- he loved it -- but because it wasn't especially surprising.
"Isn't this what everybody expected?" he asked. "Isn't this what they had to do?"
SAME WHITE BACKGROUND
Had to mimic the Doyle Dane look with the white background, sans-serif typeface and dry, arch copy. Had to position it less as an introduction than as a reincarnation. Had to be simultaneously contemporary and nostalgic. Wasn't it, the judge wanted to know, all so obvious?
Yes, it was. So was the light bulb.
All Edison had to do was run a current through a thin filament in a glass-enclosed vacuum. Deprived of oxygen, the filament wouldn't burn -- just glow. It was so obvious. Also colossally difficult to actually achieve. What changed the world wasn't Edison's insight; it was insight combined with extraordinary determination and skill.
Here's to determination and skill. Because the "obviousness" of the assignment, in lesser hands, might have yielded pitiful results. It is one thing to decide to emulate the greatest advertising campaign in American history, another matter altogether to actually advance it. And this campaign does.
One spot, alluding to the Beetle's place in the '60s counterculture, shows a fuzzy, spinning daisy. When the picture sharpens, though, the daisy is revealed to be seven yellow New Beetles. "Less flower," the copy says. "More power."
Nostalgic, witty and, lo and behold, informative. On top of everything else this campaign needed to achieve, it had to communicate how -- unlike the rear-engine old Beetle -- the new model is a real, performing car. A real car, that is, with a unique pedigree. To that end, a print and outdoor headline shows the car in profile along with this simple message: "The engine's in the front, but its heart's in the right place." Another captures the very essence of the New Beetle with the same layout, different copy: "Is it possible to go backwards and forwards at the same time?"
As it turns out, yes.
"We were looking to do what was right for this car," says Ron Lawner, Arnold's managing partner and chief creative officer. "The brands that are most successful are the ones that recognize some sort of continuity. You don't wallow in the past and you don't wallow in formulas, but you don't necessarily throw out everything that came before."
In this case, of course, the everything that came before was not merely useful, but critical.
"We have a saying," Mr. Lawner says. "It was built in Germany, but made in America."
The Beetle experience, he means. Only in America did the homely little car transcend its inherent utility and economy to become an icon, an institution, a Love Bug. Indeed, one of the creative challenges was to explain to the German client the degree to which emotion -- the sort of emotion you feel for the runt of the litter -- formed America's relationship with the homely, clunky old Beetle.
"We went to great pains to replay the history of the car in the United States," says art director Alan Pafenbach, who, with Mr. Lawner and fellow exec VP and creative director, Lance Jensen, spearheaded the campaign. "We interviewed industrial designers, sociologists, [people] like that, just to reinforce to the Germans what the car represented in the United States."
The client understood, but once the agency was given license to be emotional and uplifting, there was still plenty of room for failure. For instance, if the ads were too nostalgia-laden, the car could have been perceived as a Boomer's plaything, a car with no appeal to VW's youthful "Drivers Wanted" demographic because it is too associated with middle age.
Furthermore, while the old Beetle was beloved, it was also widely be-hated for its dinky engine, tiny passenger compartment, worthless defroster and noted crash unworthiness. Playing to the past carried the risk of conjuring up all the wrong experiences.
This required a delicate balance of the more-power message with the wistful references to the halcyon days of yore. Fortunately, the spare style that served the purposes of nostalgia also served the purposes of universality.
The apparent simplicity of each ad not only mimics the apparent simplicity of its forebears, it acts as a sort of Rorshach ink blot. Each consumer can process the imagery and respond according to his own values, background and personality -- boomers with nostalgia, say, or 19-year-old Brittany with, "That is, like, soooo the cutest thing!"
Beyond simplicity, though, is the matter of voice. It had to speak to all audiences with the same combination of droll Bernbachian detachment and Love Bug warmth.
CAN'T MESS UP ON VOICE
"It's tonal," Mr. Pafenbach says. "You can't mess up on voice. It took careful navigation of very subtle things, especially when you only have three elements on the page."
In the end, in pursuit of the obvious and not-so-obvious, the decisions came down to the soul of the new machine. Many Arnold creatives contributed ideas, a handful made the cut. "If it wasn't magical," Mr. Lawner says, "or if it didn't create emotion -- really ring true -- we didn't use it."
The result was the first campaign honored by Ad Age for all of its multimedia elements. It is a campaign bespeaking both insight and skill. It is witty, charming, informative, emotional, broadly appealing and, like at least one other