Copywriting Tips from the VW “Think Small” Ad Man

mad menBob Levenson has been hailed as the greatest “ad man” of all time by his contemporaries on Madison Avenue and around the world. Like Rosser Reeves, Levenson’s dynamic career and accomplishments were used as a model for AMC’s Mad Men. Once you start looking into the mind of this copywriting genius, it becomes quickly apparent why Advertising Age named his VW campaign the best campaign of the 20th century.

Bob Levenson & Volkswagen

Levenson’s creativity at Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) showed itself early on in his work with Volkswagen. During the 1960s, cars were about muscle, power, and gasoline – lots of gasoline. VW was the diametrical opposite.

Levenson created the famous “Think Small” campaign, “Lemon” campaign, and a number of artistic TV spots. It’s no wonder that Jerry Della Femina wrote, “In the beginning there was Volkswagen. That was the day when the new advertising agency was really born.” This rebirth was largely due to Levenson’s creativity in conversion writing. See these examples:

With regards to his “Lemon” campaign, Levenson told a Chicago Tribune reporter:

“It was a pretty audacious thing for a car company to call its own car a lemon. It’s still audacious to run a picture of your product with a headline suggesting something is wrong with it. But it was such an arresting combination, and when you read the ad, you found out the car was a lemon because it had a scratch on the glove compartment and was rejected just because of that. The last line was, ‘We pluck the lemons, and you get the plums.’”

Bob Levenson: “Do This Or Die.”

Not sold that Levenson really knew what he was doing when it came to conversion writing? Check out this famous piece of copy he wrote for DDB:

Do This or Die

(see larger version here)

This kind of genuine candor was characteristic of Levenson’s writing style and advertising philosophy. In fact, one of Levenson’s most quoted pieces of advice is one my favorite comments on copywriting:

“Start off with ‘Dear Charlie,’ then say, ‘this is what I want to tell you about.’ Make believe that the person you’re talking to is a perfectly intelligent friend who knows less about the product than you do. Then, when you’ve finished writing the copy, just cross out ‘Dear Charlie’.”

What do you see as an essential part of successful small business copywriting? Candor? Information? Creativity?

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Ben Richardson is a writer based in Nashville, TN. While he loves writing on a variety of subjects, he's our go-to on all things related to branding and the creative aspects of content marketing. Follow him on Twitter!

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