How Hitler's Volkswagen Beetle Conquered America

Helmut Krone left for vacation a very depressed man. A celebrated art director at the advertising firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) since 1954, Krone had just been tasked with heading a campaign for the Volkswagen, an unusual little automobile with modest sales and a sordid history. Taking notice of the first models to roll off the assembly lines in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 1938, The New York Times referred to it as a “beetle.”  

Less admiringly, they also called it “baby Hitler.”

The compact car was a product of Adolf Hitler’s wish for an affordable vehicle that would help ease Germany’s families into a future full of autobahns and technological innovation. He enlisted Ferdinand Porsche to design it. By 1938, a working model was ready. By 1939, the Wolfsburg factory was turned over to the military for wartime needs. Manufacturing for the Volkswagen (or “People’s Car”) went on hiatus.

After the war, British forces supervised the car's renewed production at the plant they now controlled. Germans consumers loved the Beetle, which became so pervasive that, by the 1950s, they made up a third of all cars on the road.

Krone knew the market in America would be a different story. Exactly two Beetles had been sold in 1949, the first year the car was available in the States. By the time the account came to his ad agency in 1959, it had yet to make a dent in an auto market dominated by hulking vehicles and domestic manufacturers. It was small, odd, and had a heritage uncomfortably aligned with the Nazi regime. 

Working with Bernbach and copywriter Julian Koenig, Krone conceptualized three print ads, sighed, and left for the Virgin Islands to clear his head. When he returned two weeks later, he was Madison Avenue’s biggest star. The Beetle would shortly become an iconic symbol of 1960s counterculture, embraced by a demographic that was exactly the opposite of Hitler's homogenized ideal.

To make that impossible sale to the American public, Bernbach and his men had to first accomplish one thing: reinvent advertising.

Bernbach had always taken a unique view of the ad world. In the decades leading up to the 1950s, campaigns for consumer products were often stilted, relying heavily on illustrations and facts to send direct messages. There was little attention given to creativity, with executives steering concepts based on market research.

At DDB, Bernbach encouraged writers and art directors to collaborate rather than try to make art fit copy (or vice versa) after the fact. He embraced simplicity and charm rather than dry recitations of product features or endorsements. His famous 1950s ads for Ohrbach’s retail stores were some of the first to tease readers by leading with negativity: in one, a sorrowful-looking dog explains he "hates" the store because his owner is always shopping there.  

Bernbach’s irreverent style caught the attention of Carl Hahn Jr., the president of Volkswagen America. His division had been allotted $800,000 to mount a major campaign in the States. While Detroit automakers dominated the industry, Hahn thought the Beetle—a car costing less than $2000 and known in other countries as the Flea, Mouse or Turtle—was so bizarre-looking it would prove disruptive. He wasn’t introducing another heavily-muscled American car: this was something almost abstract. It was distinctive enough to draw attention.  

Hahn found a captive audience in Bernbach, who was eager to apply his unconventional methods to something as mainstream as the automotive market. Bernbach’s employees, however, weren’t so receptive. According to George Lois, a design director for DDB, Bernbach’s announcement in 1959 that they’d be taking on Volkswagen was met with irritation. World War II was a fresh wound, and Lois had no desire to promote what he called a “Nazi car.”

It was the Third Reich’s Kraft durch Fruede (Strength Through Joy) "leisure" division that had overseen Hitler’s wish for Germans to enjoy their free time on the coming autobahns. The Wolfsburg factory where the cars were made, however, was hardly a picnic. Slave labor was utilized; female workers who gave birth saw their children sent off to orphanages. To say the Beetle had baggage was an understatement.

But Bernbach couldn’t be dissuaded. He told Lois they’d work on Volkswagen for a year as a public audition in the hopes of securing a bigger account like General Motors. DDB was a tiny agency that needed to make waves.

Bernbach then pulled Krone into the mix. Born in Germany and raised in New York, he had one crucial asset: he was one of the few Americans who had actually bought a Volkswagen and had an understanding of it. The agency also enlisted the copywriter Koenig to come up with something that would capture the eye in the Bernbach tradition: minimalist and witty.

Out of Bernbach’s lighthearted atmosphere came the solution to being saddled with the Beetle’s goofy looks: make fun of it before anyone else could. Brainstorming, Koenig wrote the phrase “think small.” DDB employee Rita Selden came up with a single word to compel magazine-flipping readers to stop: “lemon.”

Krone was initially resistant to the self-deprecating approach. He felt a car so foreign in design needed to be covered with a metaphorical coat of paint to hide its origins. But Bernbach pushed back: the humor was needed. When Koenig dropped “Think Small” on the table, Krone used white space to miniaturize the car even further.

Krone decided to use a specific template, "Layout A," that consisted of two-thirds image, one-third copy, and a bold headline stuck in the middle of the two. While not new to advertising, it was a fresh approach in auto marketing. Most of the Volkswagen ads to come out of the campaign adhered to the format, which also mandated three blocks of text. Unlike most recurring ad series of the era, Bernbach opted not to have a slogan. Instead, the “VW” logo appeared as their way of branding.

Krone and Koenig’s early efforts with “Layout A” were nothing short of revolutionary. Car marketing at the time was almost interchangeable; Volkswagen’s had both a distinctive presentation—one that Krone believed could be identified from up to 30 feet away—and a winking approach to their inventory. The ads often acknowledged how absurd the Beetle looked with its rear-mounted engine and highlighted its shortcomings: there was no air conditioning, it was small, and it was slow.

Once hooked, the ads would go on to explain why a perceived weakness was actually a positive. Calling one a “lemon” drew attention to the fact that the company had a full-time inspector for each car that rolled off the lines. Small? Sure, the car was small. But it was also a gas-sipper. Other ads, in turn, called it a “joke,” implored readers to not laugh at it, and mentioned it was easy to push in case you ran out of gas. DDB even enlisted Wilt Chamberlain to demonstrate that the car was too compact for anyone over seven feet tall. it was one of the few celebrity endorsements for which the star had no use for the product.

Bernbach’s instincts couldn’t have been more on point. The culture of the 1960s was being created and informed by iconoclasts that were suspicious of conventional advertising techniques. Baby boomers growing into jobs were also distancing themselves from their parents—and by extension, their parents’ boat-sized sedans. The Beetle was everything the establishment wasn’t: trendy, exciting, and aesthetically daring. Bernbach’s ads captured its appeal perfectly. Krone was happy to be proven wrong.

By 1972, the Volkswagen Beetle had accomplished the impossible. With 15 million units produced, it had outpaced Ford’s Model T to become the most ubiquitous vehicle ever made. Sales had climbed from two in 1949 to 570,000 in 1970. Surfers and hippies piled in. Hitler’s car had successfully escaped its bleak history to become something almost huggable.

Its effect on advertising as a whole was even greater. DBB grew from $25 million in billings to $270 million annually by the end of the 1960s; Bernbach’s humor and stylized sales pitches became commonplace in everything from Avis (the number-two car rental company that promised to “try harder”) to Life cereal’s hard-to-please Mikey. Products began to have character, and agencies were now given more permission to exert creative control over ads instead of being forced to color inside the lines of company marketing departments. Advertising had become self-aware.

By the time Bernbach died in 1982, he was already considered the most important man in advertising. His stature hasn’t changed. Ad Age, considered the mainstay publication of the industry, voted the Beetle campaign the best of the century.

After spending 30 years at DDB, Krone passed away at age 70 in 1996. Koenig died in 2014 after some extended sparring sessions with Lois, who Koenig alleged took too much credit for work done at the agency—though Koenig was fond of tall tales himself, like insisting he invented thumb wrestling in 1936. (Koenig was also name-dropped on Mad Men, a show Lois despises for its depiction of 1960s office behavior.)

The Beetle did not go on to have as steady a career as the men who sold it to America. After the Toyota Corolla emerged as a promising alternative in 1968, sales began to plummet. By 1990, Volkswagen had just one percent of the U.S. auto market, down from five percent in 1970.    

It wasn’t until the Beetle was reintroduced in 1998 that the company saw a reversal of fortunes. Capitalizing on nostalgia—the boomers were now middle-aged—and a relaxed car market, Volkswagen had to issue waiting lists for the vehicle.  

Cars continue to be manufactured in Wolfsburg, Germany, a frequent European tourist destination. Volkwagen’s beginnings had always been a bit of an open secret, but due in large part to the disarming nature of Bernbach’s house style, the Beetle was never demonized in the way it could have been. While the Third Reich nudged the car into existence, it was the labor and imagination of others who later brought it notoriety. Hitler, after all, never even had a driver’s license.

Additional Sources:
Getting the Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall, and Comeback of Volkswagen in America; Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle.

15 Spooky Halloween Traditions and Their Origins

EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images
EEI_Tony/iStock via Getty Images

Trick-or-treating, Jack-O'-Lanterns, and creepy costumes are some of the best traditions of Halloween. Share these sweet facts with friends as you sort through your candy haul.

1. Carving Halloween Jack-O'-Lanterns

Jack-o-lantern
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Jack-O'-Lanterns, which originated in Ireland using turnips instead of pumpkins, are supposedly based on a legend about a man name Stingy Jack who repeatedly trapped the Devil and only let him go on the condition that Jack would never go to Hell. When he died, however, Jack learned that Heaven didn’t really want his soul either, so he was condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal in a carved-out turnip to light his way. Eventually, locals began carving frightening faces into their own gourds to scare off evil spirits.

2. Seeing Ghosts

Celtic people believed that during the festival Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year at the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter, spirits walked the Earth. Later, the introduction of All Souls Day on November 2 by Christian missionaries perpetuated the idea of a mingling between the living and the dead around the same time of year.

3. Wearing Scary Costumes

With all these ghosts wandering around the Earth during Samhain, the Celts had to get creative to avoid being terrorized by evil spirits. To fake out the ghosts, people would don disguises so they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone.

4. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Pagan Way

Trick-or-treaters
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There is a lot of debate around the origins of trick-or-treating. One theory proposes that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave out food to placate the souls and ghosts and spirits traveling the Earth that night. Eventually, people began dressing up as these otherworldly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.

5. Going Trick-or-Treating, the Scottish Way

Other researchers speculate that the candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of guising, itself a secular version of souling. In the Middle Ages, soulers, usually children and poor adults, would go to local homes and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers ditched the prayers in favor of non-religious performances like jokes, songs, or other “tricks.”

6. Going Trick-or-Treating, the American Way

Some sources argue that our modern trick-or-treating stems from belsnickling, a tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.

7. Getting Spooked by Black Cats

Black cat in autumn leaves
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The association of black cats and spookiness actually dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when these dark kitties were considered a symbol of the Devil. It didn’t help the felines’ reputations when, centuries later, accused witches were often found to have cats, especially black ones, as companions. People started believing that the cats were a witch’s “familiar”—animals that gave them an assist with their dark magic—and the two have been linked ever since.

8. Bobbing for Apples

This game traces its origins to a courting ritual that was part of a Roman festival honoring Pomona, the goddess of agriculture and abundance. Multiple variations existed, but the gist was that young men and women would be able to foretell their future relationships based on the game. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, the Pomona festival was blended with the similarly timed Samhain, a precursor to Halloween.

9. Decorating with Black and Orange

The classic Halloween colors can also trace their origins back to the Celtic festival Samhain. Black represented the “death” of summer while orange is emblematic of the autumn harvest season.

10. Playing Pranks

As a phenomenon that often varies by region, the pre-Halloween tradition, also known as “Devil’s Night”, is credited with a different origin depending on whom you ask. Some sources say that pranks were originally part of May Day celebrations. But Samhain, and eventually All Souls Day, seem to have included good-natured mischief. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to America, they brought along the tradition of celebrating Mischief Night as part of Halloween, which was great for candy-fueled pranksters.

11. Lighting Candles and Bonfires

Campfire in the woods
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These days, candles are more likely than towering traditional bonfires, but for much of the early history of Halloween, open flames were integral in lighting the way for souls seeking the afterlife.

12. Eating Candy Apples

People have been coating fruit in sugar syrups as a means of preservation for centuries. Since the development of the Roman festival of Pomona, the goddess often represented by and associated with apples, the fruit has had a place in harvest celebrations. But the first mention of candy apples being given out at Halloween didn’t occur until the 1950s.

13. Spotting Bats

It’s likely that bats were present at the earliest celebrations of proto-Halloween, not just symbolically but literally. As part of Samhain, the Celts lit large bonfires, which attracted insects. The insects, in turn, attracted bats, which soon became associated with the festival. Medieval folklore expanded upon the spooky connotation of bats with a number of superstitions built around the idea that bats were the harbingers of death.

14. Gorging on Candy

Halloween candy and brownies
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The act of going door-to-door for handouts has long been a part of Halloween celebrations. But until the middle of the 20th century, the “treats” kids received were not necessarily candy. Toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in the popularity of trick-or-treating in the 1950s inspired candy companies to make a marketing push with small, individually wrapped confections. People obliged out of convenience, but candy didn’t dominate at the exclusion of all other treats until parents started fearing anything unwrapped in the 1970s.

15. Munching on Candy Corn

According to some stories, a candymaker at the Wunderlee Candy Company in Philadelphia invented the revolutionary tri-color candy in the 1880s. The treats didn’t become a widespread phenomenon until another company brought the candy to the masses in 1898. At the time, candy corn was called Chicken Feed and sold in boxes with the slogan "Something worth crowing for." Originally just autumnal candy because of corn’s association with harvest time, candy corn became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

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karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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