How far we've come! Or have we?

Even if you aren't a student of advertising you may be familiar with this 1950's VW ad. 


The campaign it was part of was voted the No. 1 campaign of all time in Advertising Age's 1999 The Century of Advertising. Whether or not that's a deserved title, I'll leave up to the reader to decide. But the ads undeniably demonstrate a great amount of resourcefulness, an understanding of how to grab and hold attention, skillful long form copy and tasty design aesthetics. And it came at a time when all of these things were considered "game changers."

A cynic might also point out that there's something fascinating about how an ad can erase the memory of fascism so quickly and replace it with joyous consumerism - People love to talk about how VW was Hitler's favourite car and by no means a shoe in for the American market.

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Given this legacy, it was extra funny when writer and Art Director Vic Polkinghorne tweeted his take down of this digital VW ad:

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Two points of view are competing in my head:

As an ad-fan, this is a perfect example of learning from the past and invigorating today's bad advertising with some respect for people's intelligence. Don't tell me you're cool, show me you're cool.

But the uninvolved bystander in me feels Schadenfreude. Maybe it's good that VW are having a harder time doctoring their broken reputation with slick branding. Maybe helping big corps to reengage with the magic of yesteryear's advertising is not only a Sisyphus task but also counterproductive. VW purposefully under-reported their cars' CO2 emissions on a mass scale. Could it be that the uglier a corporate system becomes, the harder it becomes for it to engineer an amicable public facade? I have no proof of that theory, but it's a nice thing to contemplate.

Either way, here's a quote from William Bernbach, the purported driving force behind the iconic campaign:

“All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level,” 

~And here's a Mark Hamilton article on the historic significance of the lemon ad~