Volkswagen As &Quot;Little Man&Quot; Extended Abstract -

Bruce G. Vanden Bergh, Michigan State University
[ to cite ]:
Bruce G. Vanden Bergh (1992) ,"Volkswagen As &Quot;Little Man&Quot; Extended Abstract -", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 174.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Page 174


Bruce G. Vanden Bergh, Michigan State University

The presentation attempted to explain the origins of the Volkswagen Beetle advertising campaign from both literary and cultural perspectives. It used David Ogilvy's observation that the campaign appeared to have been "created . . . out of air" as an informal null hypothesis against which to demonstrate that advertisements (like art and literature) are influenced by other works of art and literature and the broader cultural context in which they are created (Fox 1984, p. 255).

The analytical framework for the study presented is an integration of interpretative approaches borrowed from literary criticism, anthropological and cultural studies, and depth psychology that converge at the point where the role played by archetypal forms or structures reveals the primal origin of motifs in the arts that might otherwise (as was the case with the Beetle campaign) be considered entirely new. The various approaches tend to focus on the study of religious themes and motifs as the place where both literary and psychological structures will reveal themselves in their most abstract form devoid of confusion from representational or local content (Campbell 1949; Frye 1957; Jacobi 1959; Jung 1959; Levi-Strauss 1963). Similarly, this study tries to discover underlying cultural, literary, and psychological patterns that transcend the context in which the Volkswagen Beetle advertising campaign was created and connect it to more basic structures within these realms.

The purpose of the study, then, was to discover an archetypal structure within the Beetle campaign. The specific archetypal pattern studied was the characterization of the Beetle's personality as that which Welsford (1935) calls the "Fool," Jung (1959) labels the "Trickster", and contemporary scholars of comedy have termed the "Little Man" (Pogel 1987; Yates 1964).

Within this context, the presentation demonstrated that the literary and psychological persona created by William Bernbach and his fellow writers and artists for the Volkswagen Beetle can be found in the "Little Man" character of film, literature, comics and cartoons, and stand-up comedy routines. And, this brand persona and literary archetype has its twentieth-century origins in the works of creative personalities such as Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Robert Benchley, S. J. Perelman, James Thurber, and E. B. White (Blair 1937, 1942; Blair and Hill 1978; Pogel 1987; Welsford 1935; Yates 1964). A modern cultural and historical context was provided that traces the little-man character back to the clown figure in the work of Shakespeare and its slighlty earlier roots in the theater of the Italian Renaissance (Welsford 1935).

An analysis of 126 Volkswagen Beetle advertisements was presented in support of the thesis brought forth. Additionally, an in-depth literary critique was performed on eleven of these ads (which VW of America calls the "philosophical ads") to illustrate how the characteristics of the little-man personality were projected onto the Volkswagen Beetle itself.

The author concluded that the use of the little-man character provides a fundamental purpose to the human psyche. He or she (i.e., the clown) is ultimately an emancipator of us all from "our slaveries" whether they be social or psychological (Welsford 1935, pp. 323-324). And, in the late 1950's such a slavery was America's love affair with the big, gas-guzzling automobile. But, the clown knows the truth because he or she is an outcast and can see the foolishness of society's ways clearly. And, it was through VW's little-man, self-deprecating character that Doyle Dane Bernbach showed us how foolish it was to own a large expensive car when for the same money you could own two Beetles plus a host of other items.


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