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The Real ‘Mad Men’ of the 60s Come to Life in a Short Documentary

“The copywriting was very ordinary, straightforward, offhand; it spoke like a New Yorker at the racetrack.”

by Diana Shi
Sep 3 2016, 12:15pm

All screencaps via

In the late 60s, the simplicity and beauty of an isolated witticism hooked thousands of households into purchasing a Volkswagen Type 1, better known as the “Bug” or “Beetle." By the 70s, the Volkswagen was no longer considered top-of-the-line technology, but the automobible company prevailed in sales thanks to the extremely effective advertising campaign helmed by Helmut Krone, the artistic director of the ad agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DBB).

Now, enthusiasts and historians of the adervtising phenomenon can enjoy a documentary dedicated to the time-honored campaign. Relying on a series of talking heads interviews and historical photos throughout the years, the short Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? documents the controversial beginnings of the German car manufacturer to its rise atop the advertising totem pole, eventually creating a legendary space for itself in advertising history.

“The thing about the way they looked [...] you have to put down to Helmut Krone. He was a Bauhaus influenced art director. The page was neat, clean and simply laid out,” describes Alfredo Marcantonio, a top VW advertising manager and the author of the documentary’s companion book. “The typeface was a bit like the car; it didn’t have any fussiness about it. […] The copywriting was very ordinary, straightforward, offhand; it spoke like a New Yorker at the racetrack.”

Bob Levinson, the prolific copywriter at DDB (and inspiration for the AMC show Mad Men) opened some of his VW copy with “Dear Charlie,” Charlie being his personal best friend. Levinson utilized this method of writing with familiarity throughout the campaign. The strategy worked and the simple, elegant copy, which flowed onto the pages of American magazines, stemmed from the inherent relatability.

A crux of the campaign was the contagious readability of the VW copy—convincing and effortless without clutter, just the right amount of text. People were clamoring to soak up these advertisements because they really were that good. Ad executive John Hegarty praises the stark genius of the campaign: “It was the simplicity of it, of course. That was the first thing that attracted you to it. It was incredibly simple. Of course, simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve—getting something to be really powerful and simple is incredibly difficult. The other thing was its wit. And the other thing was, it laughed at itself. Nobody did that in advertising.”

Watch the full, 18-minute documentary, and relive consumerism done right, below:

Find the full story of the Volkswagen campaign inside the partner book, also titled Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads?, here.

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