A small car with a big idea | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 06, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 06, 2017

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A small car with a big idea

When the Volkswagen Beetle started plying through the streets of Dhaka in the late '60s, I had little notion of the “big idea” behind the “small” car, whose famous ad proudly stated: “Think small.” The Beetle was a smart car, with two doors in the front. The four wheels (not two or three) gave it the status of a car. In those days, anyone with a car held a position of status in the community. He was the gaariwala (one who owned a car), and if he had a four-digit pay check on top of it, the borolok (the moneyed man). One did not need anything more in life if one had achieved these two markers of success.

But I am not here to write about our values and how they have changed. I am trying to understand the “big idea” behind the car called the Beetle and the advertisement that said, “Think small.”

None other than Fuhrer Adolf Hitler envisioned a small car for the middle class of his Germany. It was he who envisaged an affordable car to serve the not-so-privileged people of his country soon after the war. This heinous killer, this blueprint maker of ethnic cleansing, Adolf Hitler, was obsessed with cars—a run-of-the-mill “man-child”! However, like a leader, he did correctly envision that soon after the Second World War, Germany would need a car that seated two adults in the front and three children at the back. To keep costs low, it would have to have two doors, and its engine would have to be at the back. The radiator would have no water circulating the engine as the water would freeze in the cold winters of Germany. Instead, a fan would be installed to prevent the motor from heating up. 

Little did Adolf Hitler know what would be the fate of this car when it reached the faraway lands of South Asia. At least five adults would fit themselves in the back seat. The other seat beside the driver's would be taken up by one adult and a child. Little did he or the Volkswagen walas know the disaster that would befall the Beetle in Pakistan or Bangladesh when there was no water circulating the engine and the back seat yielded under the weight of five adults. The seat would come too near to the battery. The battery cover was meant to protect the springs that hold up the back sea, but alas, in Bangladesh, most often the battery cover was out of stock. The spring got heated and the seat atop the battery would catch fire. The people squeezed and huddled in the back seat would have to jump through the front door. A series of timely actions—detecting the smell of burnt leather, sliding down the front seat, opening the front door—could prevent their backsides from catching fire. 

Neither did the Volkswagen walas know that economising on the battery would often cause the car not to start. The guy behind the driver's wheel would announce the “self is not working,” and all the passengers would happily volunteer to push the car until the engine started. Even with all these disabilities, the Volkswagen—by now a jalopy—would remain the status symbol of the middle-class sub-continentals, more specifically of the then East and West Pakistan, and then later too in Bangladesh. (By the way, India only had the “age-old Ambassadors”.)

Let’s go back to the beginning of the advertising of the Volkswagen Beetle in the early ‘60s, wherein lie some interesting stories. William Bernbach was the guy who set the trend in advertising wherein honest words were spoken. DDB was the agency. This honesty in fact won DDB the Volkswagen campaign. The campaign was for Americans in the US in the early ‘60s.  Julian Koenig (the copy writer) was hesitant about telling Americans that Volkswagen was like a beetle. He wanted to speak to them in their language of luxury, signifying the American Dream. On the insistence of Bernbach, Koenig came up with the “Think small” tagline.  Helmut Crone was of Jewish descendent but did not much care about the fact that Hitler thought up the concept of the Beetle. What went down in history was the layout of the ad of Volkswagen for the press that was created by Krone, the art director. He kept a huge space in the press ad blank.  An image of a small Volkswagen appeared on the right hand corner of the layout. The benefits of the car were at the bottom of the space in small print.

Behind every successful ad campaign, there is a “big idea”. Through the '50s, the ad world was creating a world of fantasy around cars. By being aspirational, they were creating a world that was unreal, almost fake. People wanted an honest talk with a car like Volkswagen, and that's what was addressed in the “Think small” tagline of the Beetle. 

However status-enhancing it may be to own a decaded-old Beetle, in our country, a groom would not ride a Volkswagen to bring his newlywed wife home. In the '70s, a bridal car had to be a Ford or a Dodge Dart. One owner of a Beetle was so insulted that the car he was so proud would not do for a pair of newlyweds, that he took revenge on the system by making his old Volkswagen the pilot car in a trail of cars that brought newlywed wives home.

Fast-forward 40 years thence, by when the Volkswagen had become a vintage, it was decided that the theme of this man's son's wedding too would be vintage. Suddenly it struck the son that the Volkswagen stashed away in the garage should be brought out, repaired and polished, and even if it had no air conditioning, it would be the car that would bring his newlywed bride to her new abode. It was proven yet again that thinking small never lets you down.

Advertisement such as Volkswagen's “Think small” campaign were the first of what would later be called the Creative Revolution of the '60s and the '70s. These ads relied more on big ideas than in previous decades, and we began to see a more modern style that hit the right balance of headline and body copy. To quote Mark Hamilton: “Bernbach's belief that 'good taste, good art and good writing' could be good selling was proved.”

Thumbs up to the Beetle. Think Small!

Sara Zaker is a theatre activist, media personality and Group Managing Director, Asiatic 360. 

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