Iconic Car Ads: Volkswagen – Lemon

Date: 1959
Make: Volkswagen
Model: Beetle
Advertising Agency: Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB)
Country: USA

Lemon 1

Economic Background

As the date suggests it was an interesting era in Germano-American relations. Just 14 years had passed since the end of WWII and although the two countries were at peace there was still a lot of anti-German sentiment among the American market. Purchasing power within the USA sat with people who had been directly affected by the events of the war.

What made the sell an even harder one was the fact that the car was manufactured in a factory in Wolfsburg built by the Nazis. Not to mention the deeper association with Nazism that the car carried, it’s worth remembering that the ‘People’s Car’ was a favourite of Hitler himself.

As if the odds couldn’t be stacked even further against the humble Beetle, this all fell in an era of American strength; something that was carried through into their car choices. The American muscle car was in full flight.


Lemon 2


Creative Background

The simplicity of the advert is summed up perfectly by its tagline: “We pluck the lemons, you get the plums.” But the reason for simplicity of the advert is contested. Some say DDB purposefully took this route, only adding the small brand logo at the bottom after a lot of back and forth between DDB and VW. DDB wanted the advert to sum up perfectly the car itself. A simple, stripped-down, functional car.

As a part of the grander ‘Think Small’ campaign this advert was just one in a series of adverts that looked to set the Volkswagen apart from the muscle cars Americans were buying in their thousands at the time.

The idea was to appeal to the discerning American. The American of the city who chose functionality and efficiency over the power and excess of the American muscle car.

Lemon 3

The workings of Lemon

DDB were the first ad agency to link a copywriter with an art director. The idea that the overall feel of an advert needed both the power of the word and image to be truly successful.

Lemon was a perfect example of this partnership in action. The simplicity of the image, with the black car on a completely white background, complements perfectly the simple copy to be found below.

At first glance of this car you’re led to believe that this is the perfect example of the car, Kurt Kroner however knows better. Kurt is one of the mechanics who works at the Wolfsburg factory and has deemed this car unfit for sale. He discovered a slight blemish on the chrome strip of the glove compartment. This Volkswagen is a lemon and hasn’t passed the test.

It is this preoccupation with perfection that marks the car apart. VWs, we are told, take by and large less maintenance than other cars and depreciate at a slower rate. We have Kurt and his team to thank for this.

Lemon 4


This ad single-handedly changed the game of advertising. It was self-deprecating and had an elegant twist of class and humour about it,what had once been seen a stodgy rather boring car became the cool kid on the block.

But how did this translate to purchases? Well it is said that these wry little adverts often had higher readership than the editorial found in the magazine. A stat that is unheard, both before and since DDB turned their hand to VW.

This converted to sales too. IN 1959 VW sold 120k Beatles in the US, by 1967 that had jumped to 430k. This made it the best selling import car of its generation, outselling all other imports combined. But consider this, it outsold every single American car brand apart from Impala, Mustang and Plymouth in that generation.



This advert has planted itself into popular culture. In 1999 The Century of Advertising decided that ‘Think Small’ was the number one advertising campaign of all time. What goes to show how embedded it is in the psyche is how it earned a mention on the popular AMC TV programme, Mad Men. It’s given the Don Draper treatment and all involved concede that it is a simple advert that invites conversation.

It is this advert that brought into being the adverts we have today. Sometimes playing with a company’s bad reputation in a tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating manner can be a sure-fire way of reversing public opinion. Check out the advert below to see Skoda at their best and most wryly self-aware: