Empowerment marketing and the VW Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle ads with headlines like “Think Small” flew in the face of inadequacy marketing approaches. Route 66, Shutterstock.com photo.

In a previous post I talked about inadequacy marketing. This is marketing that reinforces our insecurity and tells us that if we just buy a certain product, we will feel strong, safe, secure or sexy.

Here’s another idea. What if marketing helped us realize our potential, tapped our better instincts or engaged us with something more than self-interest? In Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sachs calls this approach empowerment marketing.

I grew up in Michigan, a state whose economy was based in the auto industry. I remember my parents (and my friends’ parents) buying a new American-made car every two years. They were supporting the industry, but they were also influenced by automobile advertising.

Auto advertising was a great example of inadequacy marketing. The ads said that your status, taste and social acceptance resulted from the car that you drove. My father’s car was very important to him. He babied it, washing it every week so it gleamed.

The Cadillac was THE status symbol. According to Sachs, Cadillac ads “sold a whole set of values–values about happiness, identity and the good life.” Owning a Cadillac showed that you had made it, you were on top.

But that sense of achievement only lasted until the next year’s model–bigger and better–rolled out. Then your car was no longer the height of fashion. It might look small and worn out. Do you think people were feeling anxious and inadequate?

Then in 1959, full-page newspaper ads began to appear with a simple image of the Volkswagen Beetle. The headline said “Think Small.” The ad copy talked about the car being modest and efficient. The antithesis of a Cadillac ad.

People found the ads funny and honest. They flew in the face of traditional advertising approaches, allowing people to celebrate something small and clunky rather than a fashionable status symbol.

“Live Below Your Means” was the headline of another Beetle ad campaign. It celebrated the fact that the car’s design had not changed for almost two decades. New model year, what model year?

Fifty years later the VW Beetle ads are “still widely considered the stand-alone best marketing campaign of the twentieth century, number one on the Ad Age list,” according to Sachs. The Beetle became a symbol of the counterculture revolution. It celebrated not the suburban dream, but freedom and the open road.

The Beetle ad campaign was creative, but it was also powerful because of its values. As Sachs said, “While Cadillac was celebrating an endless quest for status and wealth, VW celebrated joyful modesty of material desire and truth in the face of insincerity.”