Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heritage wheels: Anything but old

I've been reading an article by Bernhard Rieger on the Volkswagen Beetle* this evening as I'm prepping for tomorrow's session of my "Cars, Culture, and Place" seminar at Tufts. I think I like teaching this class for the same reason I like teaching about tourism: car culture and the tourism industry just never fail to amaze me in their inventiveness in making darned near anything into a marketable product, and teaching a course on them is a great way to find out what they've been up to lately. Reading about the history of the Beetle made me decide to go see how VW is marketing the new, all-new, really new 2012 New Beetle on its website, where I found a great example of heritage marketing and how it performs the classic modern trick of selling us the past and the future simultaneously.

On the "Profile Update," just under where it says "Completely redesigned," there's an option for "Heritage wheels," which turn out to evoke the classic style of 1960s Beetle wheels. "Close your eyes and picture the classic wheels," the text says. "They're too iconic to forget, right?"

Then when you click on "Details," you get the having-it-both-ways message: "Now open your eyes and see how cool they look taking us into the future. That’s right, we redesigned the old wheels to be completely cool and anything but old." Old, yet new--what could be better than that?

One of the things that Rieger's article shows is that German VW executives at the home office in Wolfsburg initially resisted the idea of introducing the New Beetle in 1998, not grasping the potential appeal of a somewhat-nostalgic, somewhat-ironic retro-vehicle for American buyers. The roll-out ad campaigns capitalized on this highly postmodern blend, but it struck me that the current promotion for the 2012 model shows how hard it is to sustain the momentum of the nostalgic/ironic impulse over time. Despite the evocation of the Beetle's status as an icon ("Those crisp, clean, curved lines hark back to the original"), there's actually nothing playful, ironic, or--ironically--really new about the way the car is now being marketed.

That sense of playfulness was a big part of the novelty of the original VW ad campaigns, which became almost as iconic as the car itself, and the New Beetle was able to play off of some of that older creative energy. Based on my short cruise through the website tonight, though, VW has turned to a highly conventional approach to promoting the car at this point: emphasizing its cool features and posing it in dramatic settings. Even novelty gets old, I guess--or maybe the real irony is that novelty gets especially old. As Alfred Sloan showed a long time ago when he brought the model year and built-in obsolescence into the car industry, constant change is an essential ingredient of getting people to buy new cars before they really need them. Within that logic, invoking the past is a tactic to be used sparingly, when you use it at all.

*"From People's Car to New Beetle: The Transatlantic Journeys of the Volkswagen Beetle," Journal of American History, June 2010 (pp. 91-115).


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Rita McCall said...

This is what my Grandma used to drive when she was just in her 20's to go out on dates with Grandpa. They gave this car to me, which I painstakingly restored back to life. I call my car Apple because her paint resembles the color of an Apple. LOL!