Indie Volkswagens on Screens Big and Small
by Michael Z. Newman — University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee
February 27, 2007 – 11:00
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed Little Miss Sunshine (2006), a film about an offbeat family in a Volkswagen. Produced independently of the Hollywood studios on a budget of $8 million, Little Miss Sunshine was cheered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where Fox Searchlight acquired its worldwide rights. It has grossed more than $90 million worldwide.
The VW bus in Little Miss Sunshine has an iconic quality that extends beyond its clever use in a running gag, having to be rolled into acceleration to be started from third gear while the characters run alongside. This quality comes from the VW’s history as an emblem of counterculture. VW’s advertising of the late 1950s and 1960s cultivated a sense that the brand was opposed to the dominant values of the post-War era. When the rage was rocketship styling, with conical tail lights and decorative fins and fenders, Volkswagen came out with a car that looked plain, even ugly. And when the prevailing advertising rhetoric was the blustery hard sell, Volkswagen encouraged consumers to “Think Small.” This led to the emergent counterculture’s adoption of the VW as the “love bug,” a car of choice for people opposed to rampant consumerism and traditional American go-getter ideology.
When the VW brand was revived in the 1990s under the slogan “Drivers Wanted,” a series of car ads on television updated its countercultural identity for contemporary consumers. Many of these spots featured young people with an alternative sensibility whose choice of vehicle comes to stand for an anti-mainstream posture. In the celebrated Cabrio ad from 1999, “Milky Way,” a diverse, youthful group drive around to Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” They are headed to a party, but when they get there they wordlessly communicate that all of them would rather be out driving around. As in Little Miss Sunshine, the journey becomes more important than the destination. “Milky Way,” which was also directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is addressed to an indie driver in search of something different.
“Indie” is more than movies and music. It is also the promise that through myriad cultural experiences, consumers might gain a sense of distinction from mainstream, dominant social norms and institutions, and by doing so fashion the identity of sensitive outsider.
On Little Miss Sunshine’s budget and earnings see Box Office Mojo. Bob Industries, Dayton and Faris’s commercials production company, includes a demo reel of their work. On the 1950s and 1960s VW campaign, see Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool (Chicago, 1997). The “Think Small” ad can be viewed at the Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame. A similar point about the VW “Drivers Wanted” campaign appealing to “indie” consumers is made in Douglas B. Holt, How Brands Become Icons (Harvard Business School, 2004).