As shown in our documentary The Bug, Volkswagen was super serious about its American print and TV marketing (although it never took itself seriously in the ads). In its first year in the States, VW sold exactly two cars (check out the entire VW history timeline here). By the time these ingenious commercials became part of the pop culture landscape in the 1960s, The Bug was a superstar.
Like the car itself, VW commercials were odd, funny-looking, raw, but dependable. During program breaks, viewers didn’t head to the bathroom — they stayed and watched, and sales (and bladders) exploded. These weren’t just commercials — they were events. People talked about them. Journalists wrote about them. And VW dealers watched the amounts roll in.
Check out the best of them here. They’re some of the most powerfully effective TV commercials you will ever see (if you’re even still watching TV commercials).
This joint was filmed in 1970, and shows that, of all the cars at the 1949 Auto Show, the lonely Volkswagen was the only one that kept its promise (even though nobody was listening). Yep, that’s McLean Stevenson selling Packards.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2jJeEnHbtA&w=560&h=315]
Shortly before he was seduced by Mrs. Robinson, Dustin Hoffman was seducing America with a bigger Bug — awesomely called the Fastback Sedan. This ad was an honest answer to those consumers who thought the VW was not roomy enough. Dusty’s in super-sales mode here, but it’s low-pressure and non-threatening. That’s what makes it so convincing. He’s about to show us where the engine is stored, but only your VW dealer knows for sure. This clever cliffhanger got people rushing into VW showrooms to learn the answer.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGdf9ea2olQ&w=560&h=315]
By 1971, America was primed for dark humor. The New Hollywood was already producing films like Bonnie & Clyde, Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, but TV was playing catch up. All in the Family would debut in January of that year (and M*A*S*H soon after), sounding the toilet flush for a type of TV humor that didn’t mind offending and didn’t care if you were. As usual, Volkswagen was just a few car lengths ahead of the curve, as seen in this darkly funny ad that shows sweet revenge from the Other World.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqcCqjrJ9HE&w=560&h=315]
Just in time for America’s bigger-is-better obsession with shiny objects, conspicuous consumption, and overloaded chome, Volkswagen (which is none of these things), quietly, humbly shows how you can reallocate funds by being a nonconformist.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tHwQK4VQMc]
Volkswagen never cared how its Bug looked; it cared how it worked. And this commercial shows you just that, with a ballsy and no-nonsense demonstration of what makes the VW so alpha. Very few other auto manufacturers would try this shit at home.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lB9rK8UR0vk&w=560&h=315]
Your Bug is a wonderland. Here’s early-career John Mayer (2006), making music with the New Beetle, showing that the VW can still rock, in case you had your doubts. In fact, the idea here is to turn your Bug into an actual musical instrument.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jLSUSqH55Q&w=560&h=315]