How Hitler's Volkswagen Beetle Conquered America

Helmut Krone left for vacation a very depressed man. A celebrated art director at the advertising firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) since 1954, Krone had just been tasked with heading a campaign for the Volkswagen, an unusual little automobile with modest sales and a sordid history. Taking notice of the first models to roll off the assembly lines in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 1938, The New York Times referred to it as a “beetle.”  

Less admiringly, they also called it “baby Hitler.”

The compact car was a product of Adolf Hitler’s wish for an affordable vehicle that would help ease Germany’s families into a future full of autobahns and technological innovation. He enlisted Ferdinand Porsche to design it. By 1938, a working model was ready. By 1939, the Wolfsburg factory was turned over to the military for wartime needs. Manufacturing for the Volkswagen (or “People’s Car”) went on hiatus.

After the war, British forces supervised the car's renewed production at the plant they now controlled. Germans consumers loved the Beetle, which became so pervasive that, by the 1950s, they made up a third of all cars on the road.

Krone knew the market in America would be a different story. Exactly two Beetles had been sold in 1949, the first year the car was available in the States. By the time the account came to his ad agency in 1959, it had yet to make a dent in an auto market dominated by hulking vehicles and domestic manufacturers. It was small, odd, and had a heritage uncomfortably aligned with the Nazi regime. 

Working with Bernbach and copywriter Julian Koenig, Krone conceptualized three print ads, sighed, and left for the Virgin Islands to clear his head. When he returned two weeks later, he was Madison Avenue’s biggest star. The Beetle would shortly become an iconic symbol of 1960s counterculture, embraced by a demographic that was exactly the opposite of Hitler's homogenized ideal.

To make that impossible sale to the American public, Bernbach and his men had to first accomplish one thing: reinvent advertising.

Bernbach had always taken a unique view of the ad world. In the decades leading up to the 1950s, campaigns for consumer products were often stilted, relying heavily on illustrations and facts to send direct messages. There was little attention given to creativity, with executives steering concepts based on market research.

At DDB, Bernbach encouraged writers and art directors to collaborate rather than try to make art fit copy (or vice versa) after the fact. He embraced simplicity and charm rather than dry recitations of product features or endorsements. His famous 1950s ads for Ohrbach’s retail stores were some of the first to tease readers by leading with negativity: in one, a sorrowful-looking dog explains he "hates" the store because his owner is always shopping there.  

Bernbach’s irreverent style caught the attention of Carl Hahn Jr., the president of Volkswagen America. His division had been allotted $800,000 to mount a major campaign in the States. While Detroit automakers dominated the industry, Hahn thought the Beetle—a car costing less than $2000 and known in other countries as the Flea, Mouse or Turtle—was so bizarre-looking it would prove disruptive. He wasn’t introducing another heavily-muscled American car: this was something almost abstract. It was distinctive enough to draw attention.  

Hahn found a captive audience in Bernbach, who was eager to apply his unconventional methods to something as mainstream as the automotive market. Bernbach’s employees, however, weren’t so receptive. According to George Lois, a design director for DDB, Bernbach’s announcement in 1959 that they’d be taking on Volkswagen was met with irritation. World War II was a fresh wound, and Lois had no desire to promote what he called a “Nazi car.”

It was the Third Reich’s Kraft durch Fruede (Strength Through Joy) "leisure" division that had overseen Hitler’s wish for Germans to enjoy their free time on the coming autobahns. The Wolfsburg factory where the cars were made, however, was hardly a picnic. Slave labor was utilized; female workers who gave birth saw their children sent off to orphanages. To say the Beetle had baggage was an understatement.

But Bernbach couldn’t be dissuaded. He told Lois they’d work on Volkswagen for a year as a public audition in the hopes of securing a bigger account like General Motors. DDB was a tiny agency that needed to make waves.

Bernbach then pulled Krone into the mix. Born in Germany and raised in New York, he had one crucial asset: he was one of the few Americans who had actually bought a Volkswagen and had an understanding of it. The agency also enlisted the copywriter Koenig to come up with something that would capture the eye in the Bernbach tradition: minimalist and witty.

Out of Bernbach’s lighthearted atmosphere came the solution to being saddled with the Beetle’s goofy looks: make fun of it before anyone else could. Brainstorming, Koenig wrote the phrase “think small.” DDB employee Rita Selden came up with a single word to compel magazine-flipping readers to stop: “lemon.”

Krone was initially resistant to the self-deprecating approach. He felt a car so foreign in design needed to be covered with a metaphorical coat of paint to hide its origins. But Bernbach pushed back: the humor was needed. When Koenig dropped “Think Small” on the table, Krone used white space to miniaturize the car even further.

Krone decided to use a specific template, "Layout A," that consisted of two-thirds image, one-third copy, and a bold headline stuck in the middle of the two. While not new to advertising, it was a fresh approach in auto marketing. Most of the Volkswagen ads to come out of the campaign adhered to the format, which also mandated three blocks of text. Unlike most recurring ad series of the era, Bernbach opted not to have a slogan. Instead, the “VW” logo appeared as their way of branding.

Krone and Koenig’s early efforts with “Layout A” were nothing short of revolutionary. Car marketing at the time was almost interchangeable; Volkswagen’s had both a distinctive presentation—one that Krone believed could be identified from up to 30 feet away—and a winking approach to their inventory. The ads often acknowledged how absurd the Beetle looked with its rear-mounted engine and highlighted its shortcomings: there was no air conditioning, it was small, and it was slow.

Once hooked, the ads would go on to explain why a perceived weakness was actually a positive. Calling one a “lemon” drew attention to the fact that the company had a full-time inspector for each car that rolled off the lines. Small? Sure, the car was small. But it was also a gas-sipper. Other ads, in turn, called it a “joke,” implored readers to not laugh at it, and mentioned it was easy to push in case you ran out of gas. DDB even enlisted Wilt Chamberlain to demonstrate that the car was too compact for anyone over seven feet tall. it was one of the few celebrity endorsements for which the star had no use for the product.

Bernbach’s instincts couldn’t have been more on point. The culture of the 1960s was being created and informed by iconoclasts that were suspicious of conventional advertising techniques. Baby boomers growing into jobs were also distancing themselves from their parents—and by extension, their parents’ boat-sized sedans. The Beetle was everything the establishment wasn’t: trendy, exciting, and aesthetically daring. Bernbach’s ads captured its appeal perfectly. Krone was happy to be proven wrong.

By 1972, the Volkswagen Beetle had accomplished the impossible. With 15 million units produced, it had outpaced Ford’s Model T to become the most ubiquitous vehicle ever made. Sales had climbed from two in 1949 to 570,000 in 1970. Surfers and hippies piled in. Hitler’s car had successfully escaped its bleak history to become something almost huggable.

Its effect on advertising as a whole was even greater. DBB grew from $25 million in billings to $270 million annually by the end of the 1960s; Bernbach’s humor and stylized sales pitches became commonplace in everything from Avis (the number-two car rental company that promised to “try harder”) to Life cereal’s hard-to-please Mikey. Products began to have character, and agencies were now given more permission to exert creative control over ads instead of being forced to color inside the lines of company marketing departments. Advertising had become self-aware.

By the time Bernbach died in 1982, he was already considered the most important man in advertising. His stature hasn’t changed. Ad Age, considered the mainstay publication of the industry, voted the Beetle campaign the best of the century.

After spending 30 years at DDB, Krone passed away at age 70 in 1996. Koenig died in 2014 after some extended sparring sessions with Lois, who Koenig alleged took too much credit for work done at the agency—though Koenig was fond of tall tales himself, like insisting he invented thumb wrestling in 1936. (Koenig was also name-dropped on Mad Men, a show Lois despises for its depiction of 1960s office behavior.)

The Beetle did not go on to have as steady a career as the men who sold it to America. After the Toyota Corolla emerged as a promising alternative in 1968, sales began to plummet. By 1990, Volkswagen had just one percent of the U.S. auto market, down from five percent in 1970.    

It wasn’t until the Beetle was reintroduced in 1998 that the company saw a reversal of fortunes. Capitalizing on nostalgia—the boomers were now middle-aged—and a relaxed car market, Volkswagen had to issue waiting lists for the vehicle.  

Cars continue to be manufactured in Wolfsburg, Germany, a frequent European tourist destination. Volkwagen’s beginnings had always been a bit of an open secret, but due in large part to the disarming nature of Bernbach’s house style, the Beetle was never demonized in the way it could have been. While the Third Reich nudged the car into existence, it was the labor and imagination of others who later brought it notoriety. Hitler, after all, never even had a driver’s license.

Additional Sources:
Getting the Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall, and Comeback of Volkswagen in America; Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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Jimi Hendrix’s Connection to Hogan's Alley—Vancouver's Lost Black Neighborhood

Marjut Valakivi, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons
Marjut Valakivi, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

From the early 1900s through the 1960s, Hogan’s Alley—the unofficial name of Park Lane, an alley that ran between Union and Prior Streets in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighborhood—was a multicultural area that hosted an enclave of Black Canadians, largely immigrants and their descendants, who had resettled from American states to find work, generally on the Great Northern Railway system.

As a result of rampant racism and housing discrimination within the city, many of Vancouver's Black residents also migrated there, establishing numerous businesses including Pullman Porters’ Club, famed eatery Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, and the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel, the city’s only Black church at the time, which was partly spearheaded by Zenora Rose Hendrix—a pillar of the community and grandmother to legendary rocker Jimi Hendrix. Yet, despite the neighborhood's thriving business and cultural scene, city officials didn't hesitate to level Hogan's Alley and displace its many residents when it got in the way of an ill-conceived government construction project that was eventually abandoned altogether.

As national uprisings in support of the Black Lives Matter movement continue, racism has been declared a public health crisis throughout the U.S. following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black citizens at the hands of law enforcement. Standing in solidarity with Americans calling for an end to police militarization, cultural advocates in Vancouver have been outraged by the harsh treatment of protesters in the United States. Growing frustration in the area has prompted a demand for the once-bustling, historic Black community of Hogan’s Alley to be recultivated as a cultural, commercial, and residential center for Black Vancouverites.

The Rise and Fall of Hogan's Alley

Ross and Nora Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix's paternal grandparents.Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Zenora “Nora” Rose Hendrix was born in the States, but became a much-admired member of the Hogan's Alley community. Nora (who, like her grandson, was a talented musician) was a cook at Vie's, a restaurant that was frequented by jazz icons including Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong during concert stops.

Jimi, who was raised in Seattle, forged a strong bond with the area during summer visits with his grandparents and via a short stint living with them, during which he attended first grade at Vancouver’s Dawson Annex School. He returned to the area in the early 1960s, where he regularly performed at local venues like Dante’s Inferno and Smilin’ Buddha.

At the same time Jimi was building his reputation as a world-renowned musician, the city of Vancouver began work on a development project to replace and expand the Georgia viaduct. To accommodate its redevelopment, which included the construction of a new interurban freeway, parts of the city would need to be destroyed. Hogan’s Alley was among the neighborhoods that city authorities had deemed disposable because, according to the Vancouver Heritage Fund, it had a reputation as “a center of squalor, immorality, and crime.”

Vancouver’s Chinatown was yet another neighborhood that was at the top of the list to be razed to make way for the Georgia viaduct and its new freeway, but Chinatown residents and the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA) were able to effectively protest and shield that area from demolition. Though many of Hogan’s Alley’s Black residents participated in protests against the urban renewal agenda that was aimed at wiping out their neighborhood, they were unsuccessful.

In 1967, work on the first phase of construction began, effectively erasing the western half of Hogan’s Alley and forcing many Black families to leave the area in search of new housing and better opportunities. Though the building of the freeway was eventually stopped, it was too late for the residents of Hogan’s Alley.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Hogan's Alley: Then and NowMike via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the near-half-century since the demise of Hogan’s Alley, no other cultural epicenter for Vancouver’s Black community has sprung up to take its place. Today, even within the city, the story of Hogan’s Alley and its dismantling is largely unknown—though there have been various efforts made to ensure that the neighborhood and its importance to the city’s history are not forgotten.

When the city revealed its plans to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts in 2015, the announcement received a lot of attention in the area. In June 2020 activists—including members of the Hogan's Alley Society, a nonprofit organization that works to highlight the contributions of Black Vancouverites to the city’s history—held a peaceful protest wherein they occupied the viaducts in order to bring attention to the role the structures played in the decimation of Hogan's Alley. While they're happy to see the viaducts go, the protestors want to make sure that the city fulfills its promise to erect a Black Cultural Center in the structures' place and restore a vital part of Vancouver's lost Black history.

Dr. June Francis, chair of the Hogan’s Alley Society, told Global News the viaducts were “a monument to the displacement and the oppression of the Black community ... [Hogan’s Alley] was erased by the actions of the city.”

While the city promised to build a cultural center where Hogan's Alley once stood, Francis said two years have passed with no actions taken to fulfill that commitment. "I expect the city, actually, to come out with a definitive statement to these young people to say 'We believe in your future and here is our response to you,'" she said.

A Shrine to Jimi

Vancouver's Jimi Hendrix ShrineRunran via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2019, Nora Hendrix Place—a three-story, 52-unit, modular housing facility—was opened in the former Hogan’s Alley area to provide temporary shelter to the city’s homeless population. According to The Star, “The building will be run by the Portland Hotel Society and have a focus on supporting marginalized groups experiencing homelessness, while also including design elements shaped by Black culture.” But Nora’s famous grandson hasn't been forgotten either.

In the 1990s, a Jimi Hendrix Shrine—a small, fire engine red temple—was created where Vie’s once stood. It was an homage to Jimi’s career and the time he spent in Hogan’s Alley, complete with vinyl records, concert flyers, and letters from Jimi to his grandmother. Though the space is currently closed, its creator, Vincent Fodera, hopes to not only upgrade the shrine but to eventually have a 32-foot statue of Jimi towering over it.

While few physical reminders of Hogan’s Alley remain today, thanks to the lasting contributions of the area’s residents—including the Hendrix family—and the tireless efforts of its preservation advocates, the legacy of Hogan’s Alley’s will hopefully once again become an indelible part of the cultural fabric of Vancouver and its history.