Volkswagen Beetle

12 April 2008

Say Vhat?! Do the People Want a VW with a German Accent?

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Husband of Beetle Owner…

He sits there before his mic, round and retro, emanating the cuteness that made him an icon in America. On this occasion, he wears formal black, though he’s usually seen in the wild dressed like a jelly bean. Then he speaks…

And out comes the voice of an old German man.
And he’s saying, “I know vhat ze people vant.”

Yeah, right…

I usually applaud the work of ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. For VW, they brought over the daring quirkiness they honed with the MINI Cooper. (Since Crispin ditched that account, MINI’s ads have been rather uninspired, even banal.) I love Crispin’s 2006 “Unpimp Your Ride” ads for the VW GTI, with the German engineer from the hood (“Een da haus!”) and his dominatrix assistant, Helga…

But the talking Beetle?
Can we have Helga back?

Now, mascots often succeed in advertising, whether they’re human (yes, Colonel Sanders, you’re a mascot) or a talking gecko (need I mention that I’m referring to GEICO?). So why not a talking car?

When I first heard about this new VW campaign, I thought it was brilliant. I grew up watching Herbie the Love Bug, and I always saw the Beetle as having a personality. In an industry filled with such soulless lumps of sheet metal as the Toyota Camry, a car with personality goes a long way.

But I’m not so sure about this.

First, there’s the issue of the voice. It didn’t bug me (no pun intended), but my wife, a proud Beetle owner, expected cuter and, well, groovier, as in the flower-child era the Beetle represents.

Then there’s the presumption that this German import knows what Americans want, which might irk some people, even if many of the statements are user-generated. The VW site features some pseudo-participatory democracy, with polls submitted and answered by users. Some made me laugh…

Others touched on controversies like private school vouchers. Yeah, let’s not go there. Or this: “86% of the people want to tie management compensation to company performance.” Let’s see how that goes over at VW USA. Or at Crispin.

Then there’s the cat issue…

Uh, nein. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, pet cats outnumber pet dogs in the U.S. 88.3 million to 74.8 million. Indeed, most VW Beetle owners are women, who prefer cats. So should our German bug make that assertion? (Rule #1 of marketing: know your customer.)

I don’t know what “The People” want on this campaign, but I doubt it will have a whole lot of mileage.

Update: Not only did this campaign have a short life, but so did Crispin’s tenure with VW.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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16 years ago

Here, here. The “people” say (or at least I do) Bring back the Nick Drake inspired VW campaigns!

I know it was for the Cabrio, but it was still a better ad from VW.

keri corbett
keri corbett
15 years ago

I like the commercials, I have a 69 painted like herbie the love bug and I’m going to have ot painted to look just like the one in the commercial, I think it looks way vintage with the black and chrome and white wall tires… and im a girl lol… My insight on the comm. It would be just another car comm. if they didn’t add the “somber bug”, The car is always off to the side, its black so it doesnt jump out at you but gives you just enough for the viewer to remember how much “everyone” always loved the bug(VW). If it were a jellybean color your focus would be on that and not the new mini van etc..I loved it..