Sunday, December 2, 2007

thinking small

An announcement that something for American consumers will not change is praised as an innovation. Read on...

You know how the American auto companies announce their new year's model cars a year in advance? Well, in August of 1959 American Motors president George W. Romney--yes, that Romney, candidate for US prez in '68 and father of Mitt--announced the 1961 models. But what he had to say surprised everyone: there would be no new American Motors models. Time's issue, dated August 26, called it an "innovation"--"an innovation that rattled the U.S. auto industry." The good-selling Rambler would stay the same. (The "Rambler American" would be restyled for '61 but Romney promised no changes at all on the Rambler and no "abrupt or whimsical" changes in other models.)

"Refreshing change is one thing, but incessant change has a touch of idiocy," said Romney.

He was called "the prophet of the compact car." The shift toward smaller cars and keeping model designs "meant not only a turn to function instead of frills, but a sign that the national psychology is leaning toward 'reason and realism'."

Meantime in Germany Volkswagen made 27 changes to the VW beetle but all of them were internal and invisible--and all for improved efficiency. VW made changes every year, and even during the year, but hadn't made a "model-styling change" since...1938.

The big change that Volkwagen made was in advertising. They took us by storm with their campaign, launched in '59 with the first ads running in '60, produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach and famously called "Think Small." On a list of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th century, "Think Small" is number 1. Here's a (somewhat later) video of a TV ad in the campaign: LINK.

In '62 this TV ad [YouTube video] satirized the glamorous stagey announcements of new car designs, with a drumroll as the score and portentous announcer's voice chiming: "And now, the 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 and 1962 Volkswagen!" Spotlights shimmering around this ugly little rounded-off crate of a car and then: "We never change the Volkswagen to make it look different, only to make it work better."

But Time? For them George Romney was the innovator-by-not-innovating. After all, his innovation was that his was an American automaker thinking small.

Thanks to Tim Carmody for his suggestions here.