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.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Sony

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $169 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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Watch: In 1948, Idaho Officials Sent 76 Beavers Parachuting Into Idaho’s Wilderness

A young beaver with all four feet firmly on the ground.
A young beaver with all four feet firmly on the ground.
yrjö jyske, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When people started building up the area around Idaho’s Payette Lake after World War II, its original residents began interfering with irrigation and agricultural endeavors. They weren’t exactly staging an organized protest—they were just beavers doing what beavers do.

Nevertheless, officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decided their best bet was to find a new home for the long-toothed locals. The surrounding wilderness provided plenty of options, but transportation was another issue entirely. Traversing the undeveloped, mountainous terrain would require both trucks and pack animals, and experts knew from past relocation efforts that beavers weren’t fond of either.

“Beavers cannot stand the direct heat of the sun unless they are in water,” department employee Elmo W. Heter explained in a 1950 report [PDF]. “Sometimes they refuse to eat. Older individuals often become dangerously belligerent ... Horses and mules become spooky and quarrelsome when loaded with a struggling, malodorous pair of live beavers.”

To keep Payette Lake’s beavers healthy and happy during the journey, their human handlers would need to find another method of travel. As Boise State Public Radio reports, that’s when Heter suggested making use of their leftover WWII parachutes.

Two beavers would sit inside a wooden box attached to a parachute, which could be dropped from an airplane between 500 and 800 feet above their new home in the Chamberlain Basin. The cables that fastened the box to the parachute would keep it shut during the flight, but they’d slacken enough for the beavers to open the box upon landing. After testing the operation with weights, Heter and his colleagues enlisted an older beaver named Geronimo for a few live trials.

“Poor fellow!” Heter wrote. “You may be sure that ‘Geronimo’ had a priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland, and that three young females went with him.”

Once Geronimo had certified the safety of the mission, the team began migrating the whole beaver population. During the fall of 1948, a total of 76 beavers touched down in their new territory. It wasn’t without tragedy, though; one beaver fell to his death after a cable broke on his box. Overall, however, the venture was deemed much safer (and less expensive) than any trip on foot would have been. And when department officials checked in on the beavers a year later, they had already started improving their ecosystem.

“Beavers had built dams, constructed houses, stored up food, and were well on their way to producing colonies,” Heter wrote. As Idaho Fish and Game’s Steve Liebenthal told Boise State Public Radio, the area is now part of “the largest protected roadless forest” in the continental U.S.

You can watch the Idaho Fish and Game Commission’s full 14-minute documentary about the process below.

[h/t Boise State Public Radio]