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.

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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