By students, for students.

Selling Hitler’s favourite car: VW’s American reinvention

In Marketing on February 7, 2013 at 4:54 pm

vw lemon

Tanja Lanza asks, ‘How could Volkswagen sell Hitler’s favorite car to the American people only a decade and a half after World War II?’

Penetrating the American market after the Second World War proved difficult for the VW Beetle. Not only did its small size and unusual design conflict with trends towards bigger and brasher cars in the US, but the company bore the stigma of connections with the Third Reich, having designed military vehicles for the hated regime. Recognising that it stood out among its competitors, Volkswagen decided to embrace its difference in a series of imaginative ads which reinvented their signature car as distinctive, charismatic and desirable.

The driving force behind the Volkswagen campaign was William Bernbach of DDB. Bernbach is considered the father of the “creative revolution” in the advertisement industry – setting a new standard for ironic, conversational and humorous marketing campaigns.

The ad featured a black and white photo of the Volkswagen Beetle with the word “Lemon” in bold san serif font.  Below the image follows a statement that proclaims that this particular car was rejected by Inspector Kurt Kroner because of some problems in details. Then they conclude with this tag line: “We pluck the lemons; you get the plums.”

What does “Lemon” mean?

Lemon in colloquial English is like saying that something is scrap. It gives the reader a first impression that Volkswagen was as critical of their own car as the majority of Americans.

So, this is the brilliant and risky idea: “don’t worry people this car is Lemon, but next will be better”. It’s a promise. The purpose is to draw the attention on the word “Lemon” in order to shock the customer who will keep reading what comes next on the ad. While he’s reading the article below he realizes that this car is not so bad as it seems. And maybe the next will be even more astonishing!

Additionally, the print campaign drew attention to the perfectionism of Volkswagen’s engineers – capitalising on stereotypes of German efficiency which served to distract from recent, darker manifestations of national character.

The Volkswagen ad campaign was unlike any before it, ushering in an era of modern advertising that truly changed how advertising agencies accomplish their trade.


Tanja Lanza (MSc Marketing and International Management, 2013) is passionate about all aspects of brand development and marketing campaigns. More of her writing can be found at


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