May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Delia Femina MacNamee & Partners’ mid-eighties campaign featuring “Joe Isuzu,” the compulsive liar. It won the hearts of the public and ad people with its beautifully executed vignettes featuring an outrageous character, a man you loved to hate, doing a con job on the product. Amusing, entertaining, and useless. It did nothing for Isuzu’s sales or the Isuzu brand image and—understandably—enraged the dealers, already hypersensitive to the entrenched image of car salesmen as oily cheats. Public gratitude for being entertained wasn’t motivation enough to visit the showroom and check out the product, which was kept largely invisible while Toyota, Honda et al. slugged away, selling the metal. Isuzu thereby lost a lot of potential sales by default. This campaign was an egregious example of a common advertising failing: succumbing to a powerful creative idea even if it’s wrong.
Doyle Dane Bernbach’s already immortal work on behalf of the Volkswagen Beetle. That car was ugly and unconventional, as we all know, and small—the total opposite of mainstream America’s tastes and values of the time. That it rocketed to sales success, then stayed there year after year, is amazing. All the more amazing when you consider that even by the lax standards of its era the Beetle was a very bad car, an obsolete 1933 design specifically meant (like its latter-day German counterpart, the Trabant) to give poor people rudimentary transportation, and driven by related cost considerations down to the lowest common denominator of automotive capability. The Beetle was woefully underpowered and bog-slow, to the point of posing a danger to traffic. Its narrow track, rear-engine weight bias, and crude “pendulum axle” rear suspension ensured dangerous handling instability. A strong wind could blow it off the road. It was a safety horror with virtually no frontal crash protection and a gas tank inches from the front-seat occupants’ knees. Interior space was claustrophobic. Its engine was air-cooled only because its intended buyers in thirties Germany didn’t have garages, so cold-weather starting was crucial; that Doyle Dane’s copy geniuses turned this into a plus ("No antifreeze to freeze in winter or boil over in summer") is a sign of the gullibility of the American customer. The VW Beetle was the worst product, in my memory, to ever become a sales smash.