While a minor shit storm erupted the other day over the use of a word denoting short-haired women who love women, and, allegedly, certain cars, I did a lot of the soul-searching and self-reflection demanded from me, and I thought about all the scandals I may have caused in my life, and which I would regret, if the hate mails are an indicator. There were many scandals, and one of the most egregious involved a car. Oddly enough, it involved a car that allegedly is a top choice among men who love men. The scandal, however, involved people who were into dogs, fish, and other animals. And it was about the Volkswagen Jetta.
In 1973, at the at that time not so tender age of 24, I switched from journalism to advertising. The pay was good and got obscenely better every year. I started working for Volkswagen right away. There was a huge job opening for the FNG: The first oil shock was upon us, and everybody was convinced that cars will be a matter of the past. Seasoned advertising professionals went for safer accounts, like alcohol or cigarettes. I was told to work on Volkswagen, a dead-end job as everybody was convinced. Volkswagen and I fell in love with each other, the relationship lasted longer than most marriages, from 1973 through 2007.
In late 1978, we received briefing materials for a car called Jetta. Actually, at that time, the car had no name, but a number. In the beginning, all briefing documentations were titled “EA,” followed by a number. The EA stood for “Entwicklungs-Auftrag” (development assignment,) the number was a running number. There were many gaps between the numbers when they reached us, many development orders never say the light of day. I don’t remember what the EA number of the Jetta was.
When we were given the documentation, it was handed over with a sneer. The Jetta was not very popular at Volkswagen, even when it existed only on paper. People at Volkswagen and everywhere else were in love with the Golf in 1978. It was a rip-roaring success, so were, to varying extents, the Passat, and the Polo, and the Scirocco. They were all hatches, and everybody at Volkswagen was convinced that from now on, all Volkswagen will be hatches.
The Jetta had an odd appendix that should not be there, it had a trunk.
The trunk was somehow grafted onto a Golf, like a strap-on to a — let’s not go there. To this day, Volkswagen Classic, the arm of Volkswagen that is tracking the company’s heritage, says that the “base for the new model was the technology and substantial parts of the Golf MkI. The body of the donor car were inherited up to the B pillar.” According to the official history, “the ace card of the Jetta was the formidable 520 liter volume of the trunk.”
And it was exactly that trump card trunk that made my contacts sneer and roll their eyes. The car had a second name before it even hit the market. It was called “Rucksack Golf,” a name that quickly found its way into the media, where it lives on today.
The car was there, because there was a market for a car with a trunk: People who like cars with trunks. Two years before, the Derby had been launched. It was a Rucksack-Polo. The small hatch had a huge trunk strapped-on. The trunk was so big that we fit an eponymous trunk-bearer into it for advertising purposes, an elephant. But that’s a different story for another edition of the Autobiography of BS(c).
Studies had shown that there was a niche-market of around 80,000 units for such a car, and that it would be popular mostly among older people. The Derby did not outlive its first generation. In 1981, it was discontinued, the internal reason for its early death was that “less than 100,000 people buy it, and they are all old.”
The biggest market for the Jetta was expected to be in the U.S., where the Golf saw only limited success. People in America want a real car with a real trunk, we learned at the time, and somehow, they would not get it that a hatch was a much better design, as intended by God and his priests in white, the Volkswagen engineers.
At Volkswagen, cars with trunks were seen as treason, as a betrayal of the ideology based on the superiority of hatches. Derby, Jetta, Santana: Cars with strap-ons were seen as an evil popular in those odd OTHER markets. Internally, and probably to protect one’s imperiled sanity, it was quickly decided that the Jetta is ugly, and if the Americans want such an abomination, so be it, and let’s sell as many as we possibly can in Europe, even if the car is, did we mention it, ugly.
As documented in the Autobiography of BS ©, I did not know anything about cars, and even less so about car design. I declared the car is beautiful. The fact that the car was ugly had already leaked out, the media was waiting, not with bated breath, for the Rucksack-Golf, and it was decided to go on the counter-offensive and to go with my strategy that espoused the beauty of the Jetta.
When the launch campaign for the Jetta appeared, the billboard asked: “Which is more beautiful?” It showed a Jetta and a colorful winged fish. A poster said “Which is more dependable?” It showed a Jetta and a German Shepherd dog. And so forth, you can imagine the rest. You will have to imagine it because the campaign appears to be gone. My private archive, all on 35 millimeter slides, perished when a storage place in Brooklyn caught fire, and what did not burn was ruined by the Brooklyn Fire Dept. Slides are like W.C.Fields. They hate water. Volkswagen has an early catalog on-line, but no pictures of winged fish or German canines. It’s probably better that way.
Soon after the start of the campaign, there was a huge outcry. We were blamed for “animal abuse,” because we dared to show pictures of fish and dogs, instead of the usual happy people who drive our beautiful cars. I was requested to write a form letter to be sent to all who did complain. I wrote that we are sorry for abusing animals in advertising, and that we promise to henceforth abuse people only. I don’t think they sent that letter.
I was told that Volkswagen stated that no fish, fowl or canine were harmed during the production of the ads, due to the fact that the pictures were taken under the supervision of zoological experts. If people would have wanted the truth, they would have heard that the animals were stock photos.
We were perplexed. We had shown carefully casted chiwawas and countless other cute canines before. We’ve shown flocks of sheep grazing on meadows as proof of our greenness. We’ve shown many cars that were dogs. No objections were raised. This time, waves after waves of protests crashed into Wolfsburg. An association of German Shepherd owners threatened to use us as props in the training of their guard dogs, and there were more threats, not suitable even for this mature audience.
We never found out what the reason for this outcry was, but we had our suspicions. The beautiful winged fish was a Manta, which happened to be the name of the Opel Manta, a direct competitor of the Jetta, and the object of many jokes. The stereotypical Manta driver was stupid, and was married to a blond hairdresser. If you weren’t totally dense at the time, you got the not so subtle hint that the Jetta looked better than the Manta – even the stereotypical Manta driver got it. Sometimes.
To this day, Manta jokes are a staple of that oxymoron called German humor. Manta jokes are historically so important that one made it into Wikipedia:
“What does a Manta driver say to a tree after a crash? – “Why didn’t you get out of my way, I used the horn!”
TV Tropes has a rich collection of Manta jokes. Here are a few:
“What remains when a Manta burns down? A golden necklace and a crying hairdresser.“
“How does a Manta driver make a family portrait? He puts everyone in the Manta and races through a speed trap.“
“What’s the last thing that goes through a Manta drivers head, when crashing into a wall? The rear wing.”
(Should anyone feel traumatized by the insensitivity shown towards Manta drivers and blond hairdressers, please direct your protestations to Wikipedia, TV Tropes, or Google.)
Volkswagen of course denied any connection to Manta, the car, and steadfastly maintained their position that this was an innocent campaign to underscore the elegant lines of the new Jetta, that the Manta fish was chosen for its beauty, and that any similarities with other Mantas living or dead would be purely coincidental. Comparative advertising was against the law, and there was an unspoken (or maybe secretly agreed) code of conduct that forbade slights against the competition.
Then and now, taboos were and are there to be broken. Of course, there was the suspicion that behind the shitstorm – at the time fought only with the lumbering weapons of letters to the company and to editors – was more than outraged animal rights activists that protested against the abuse of a fish in car advertising. Of course there was the suspicion that behind the outrage were slighted Manta drivers, or even Opel itself. Opel would have never admitted it either, so it turned into a proxy war.
Volkswagen did not take the campaign down. Doing so would have been a sign of weakness, an admission of wrongdoing, and frankly there were no other posters to take the place of the offensively objectionable and profoundly pejorative fish and dogs.
Showing backbone in the face of vicious attacks for silly reasons has a tradition at Volkswagen. The war of the fish and dogs was a minor incident compared to the many years of open and nasty warfare by Greenpeace against Volkswagen, one of the more environmentally attuned automakers. Knowing that it is on the good side, VW did not back down, and did not submit to greenmail. Finally, Greenpeace took its ball, pouted, and went home. “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on” is an old Arabic proverb, it is part of Volkswagen’s unreleeased corporate philosophy, and it is worth stealing. Husband your resources for when the shit really hits the fan. When criticism was justified, such as in the case of forced labor, Volkswagen was among the first to admit it and to do something about it.
Time heals all wounds, and like many small proxy wars, the brouhaha soon landed in the dustbin of history. The campaign won many medals (except with the animal rights people, the nascent PC police, and Opel), and Bertel was promoted Creative Director, and later President of the advertising agency.
In Germany, the Jetta was a limited success. It sold 90,000 in its first year and it was downhill from there. Later, I tried to resurrect the fish and dog campaign to stem the dwindling of the sales. I argued the campaign had worked before, so why not try it again. Usually, that logic was irrefutable at Volkswagen, in this case, it only received a pained “not again, Bertel.”
As predicted by the marketing strategy, the Jetta was and is a huge success in the U.S. The Jetta Mk I lived on for decades in China. In Europe, later Jettas suffered from an identity crisis, and were named Vento, Bora, or Sagitar in China.
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