Back in the 1960s, car companies had money to burn. Volkswagen, which had been selling Beetles in the United States even before Volkswagen of America was founded in 1955, had nearly 1,000 dealers across the country, and commissioned a book of humorous cartoons and essays that followed its successful “Think Small” advertising campaign.
The book is called Think Small: What’s So Funny About A Volkswagen. Inside, the book’s editors commissioned original cartoons and essays from some of the most noted writers and illustrators of the era.
The writers that Volkswagen — or more likely, its ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, that devised its ingenious “Think Small” ad campaign — assembled for this project are amazing. It would be like signing up Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin and James Patterson for some kind of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World vanity project.
For example, a great essay penned by Harry Golden describes his fascination with the Winton he first saw when he was a kid. Harry Golden is a name lost to time now, but in his day, he was a powerhouse writer, publisher, essayist and social commentator.
Years later, Calvin Trillin devised “the Harry Golden Rule” which states that “in present-day America it’s very difficult, when commenting on events of the day, to invent something so bizarre that it might not actually come to pass while your piece is still on the presses.”
Contributor H. Allen Smith’s Low Man on a Totem Pole was a best-seller among servicemen during World War II, to the point that the title is a well worn synonym for a rookie to this very day.The book also contains a great essay from Jean Shepherd. You might not know Jean Shepherd’s name immediately, but you know his voice: He was the original author and the narrator of the 1983 annual cable TV staple A Christmas Story. From 1948 thorough the 1970s, Americans heard Jean Shepherd’s voice coast-to-coast on the radio, building a legacy for monologists including Spalding Gray and Garrison Keillor.
The cartoons inside are straight out of the New Yorker, and utilize the talents of cartoonists illustrating the gags in that magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, True, Playboy and others.
William Steig was known as the “King of Cartoons” during his long, illustrious career. He began producing cartoons for the New Yorker in the 1930s, contributing more than 2,600 cartoons, and 117 covers during his tenure. He’s most famous for creating the character “Shrek,” which would go on to earn nearly half a billion dollars at the box office.
Charles Addams also contributes to the Volkswagen book. At the time, and even at this time, he was the most famous cartoonist on the planet, contributing thousands of cartoons to the New Yorker, Collier’s and TV Guide. His most famous creation — The Addams Family — would be a wildly popular cartoon, a television sitcom between 1964 and 1966, a trilogy of movies in the 1990s, and a Broadway musical.
The book is hard to come by these days, with just a few copies on Amazon. It’s an interesting slice of history, when car companies could throw tens of thousands of 1960s dollars at something to be given away in the dealership.