Jerry Seinfeld Brings Back Classic ‘Think Small’ VW Campaign

The print ad for the new season of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee caught my eye earlier this week. It took me back to Doyle Dane Bernbach’s iconic “Think Small” campaign.

My father, Tom Yobage, was a creative director at Doyle Dane Bernbach, and worked with Helmut Krone and many of the legends who created the campaign. I remember being a little kid, going to work with my dad a few times a year, seeing the ads on poster board around his office.

“Think Small” was one of the most famous ads in Doyle Dane Bernbach’s VW Beetle campaign in the early 1960s. Art director Helmut Krone and copywriter Julian Koenig teamed up to create what Ad Age deemed, in 1999, the #1 campaign of the previous 100 years.

The campaign has been considered so successful that, according to the Portland Business Journal, it did much more than boost sales and build decades of brand loyalty. The ad, and Doyle Dane Bernbach as well, changed the very nature of advertising–from the way it is created to what we, as consumers, see today.

There was a lot I remembered from talking to my Dad about this campaign, but also a lot I did not. So I appreciate that he jumped in with an insider’s history lesson. You may remember some of stories about Bulova Watch and Muhammed Ali.

Here are his behind-the-scenes stories from this campaign:

It looks to me like the marketers promoting the Jerry Seinfeld/Cars series recreated the famous Helmut Krone/Julian Koenig “Think Small” layout. They shot a pre-1968 beetle, with the old-fashioned front “spaghetti” bumper, on no-seam paper. They placed it in the same spot as the car in the original ad. They used the old campaign’s typeface, or something quite close to it. The writer used the VW-style copy: short sentences, lots of paragraphs, widows at the end of paragraphs, to create more white-space (all for a friendlier, less-busy, more honest feeling).

There are some changes, subtle but noticeable, from the 1960s ad. From the angle of the ad, it looks like they may have put too much leading — the white space —between the lines of copy. But that’s a small point.

And they tried to center the headline between the picture and the copy. Which most people normally do. Helmut did not center it. He moved it up 1/16th of an inch (maybe a tiny bit more). Unseen, unknown to most people, but very important to Helmut. He talked about it a lot.

The layout — 2/3 picture and 1/3 headline/copy — used to be called “old JWT #1” by some. Others called it “NW Ayer #1.” That’s because both Thompson and Ayer used the 2/3 picture and 1/3 headline/copy layout a lot. After David Ogilvy created his “Man in the Hathaway Shirt” campaign using the old JWT/NW Ayer layout, Helmut referred to the layout as the “Ogilvy layout.”

Helmut told me he made several important changes to it.

One was to shoot the car on a plain no-seam background. This made the car the star. Most other ads had lots of stuff in the background.

A second change was he used a sans serif type face. (with little dangles at the top and bottom of the letters). From the simple, honest-looking Futura family. A lot of ads back then used serif faces.

The third thing he did, and he was really proud of this, was to put a punctuation mark — a period — after the words: Think small. At the time, headlines didn’t have punctuation marks at the end — they were like book titles.

The strategy for the beetle was that it was an “Honest car.” And all the things Helmut did with the layout were to communicate that it was a simple, reliable, honest car.”

Jerry Seinfeld just proves that everything old can be new again – especially in advertising.

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