How to "improve" the greatest automotive print ad ever created.
Oh, what could’ve happened to the legendary VW “Think small” ad. I can only imagine the stunned faces of clients seeing this for the first time. But I bet they were smart enough to listen to and trust the agency’s rationale for simplicity—while promoting the car’s unique selling proposition.
Back in 1963, Communications Arts ran an article by Fred Manley, with layouts by Hal Riney. The tongue-in-cheek piece discussed ways in which Volkswagen’s ad might have been “improved.” We keep it on our office wall to remind ourselves to break the rules. Protect great ideas. Keep things simple. Say one thing. And stand out. Because it works. And that’s something clients and ad agencies can both agree on.
Nine Ways to Improve an Ad
By Fred Manley
Rule: Show the product.
Don’t turn it into a postage stamp or a test of failing eyesight. Show it. Boldly. Dramatically. Excitingly. Like this:
There. See the difference already? Now, I’ll admit the headline no longer makes complete sense—but that brings us to another obvious improvement.
Rule: Don’t use negative headlines.
“Think Small” may be very clever, very witty … but what an idea to leave in the minds of everyday readers.
“Think BIG!” Now I ask you—isn’t that better? Isn’t it more positive, more direct? And note, too, the interesting use of type to punch home the excitement of the idea. Well that brings us to still another improvement—and one of the most important rules of advertising.
Rule: Whenever possible, mention your product name in the headline.
Which the people who thought up this ad could have done so very, very easily.
See how the ad is beginning to jell? How it’s really starting to come alive. Let’s see another way we can breathe some life into it—with a warming touch of humanity.
Rule: Whenever possible, show people enjoying your product.
That’s more like it. A gracious mansion. A carefree band of dancers. And best of all, a proud pair of thoroughbreds. Now for an improvement to correct a fault in the product itself. You’ll note that the VW, unfortunately, is totally lacking in news. From year to year, while other cars bring out a host of exciting changes—it stays its own dowdy self.
Rule: Always feature news in your advertisement.
And if you have no news, invent it. Like this:
Rule: Always give prominent display to your product logo.
And I don’t mean an arty jumble of initials no one can read. I mean a proud unashamed logo like this:
There. Now they know who’s paying for the ad!
Rule: Avoid all unpleasant connotation about your product.
Which brings us to a somewhat delicate area: the country of origin of the Volkswagen car. Now I don’t have to dwell on the subject of World War II and its attendant unpleasantness for you to grasp my meaning. Let’s simply say that it might be wise to “domesticate” the car, so to speak.
Volkswagen—The All-American Car! And in a flash, apple strudel becomes apple pie!
Rule: Always tell the reader where you can buy your product.
Where can you buy a Volkswagen? “At your friendly authorized Volkswagen dealer.” Note the warmth of words like “friendly.” And the use of “authorized” to make sure that prospects don’t stumble into places that are unauthorized.
One rule to go. The most important rule of all.
Rule: Always localize your ads.
And mind the way you spell the dealer’s names. There you have it. No clever, precious, self-conscious waste of space like the ad we started with; but an honest hard-hitting, two-fisted ad like this that really sells.
I said “sells.”