Ad Track: Introducing Max the Love Bug

Herbie the Love Bug rides again … sort of.

Volkswagen, which has a goal of tripling U.S. sales to about 1 million vehicles by 2018, is rolling out a classic Beetle as the brand's face and voice in a quirky TV, Web and print ad campaign that starts Monday in print and will be on TV starting Saturday. The campaign's star is "Max," a pristinely restored 1964 black Bug.

The stepped-up brand advertising precedes Volkswagen's introduction this year of several new vehicles, including the Tiguan crossover SUV, Routan minivan, Passat CC, clean diesel Jetta TDI and Jetta SportWagen. VW would not disclose the ad budget.

"We're reintroducing Volkswagen to the world by using a lovable icon that everyone will know and relate to," says Tim Ellis, VW's vice president of marketing. "Max will be integrated into everything we do and will be the connective tissue as we launch new vehicles."

In the TV ads, Max speaks with a German accent and plays a talk-show host. He conducts offbeat interviews with an eclectic batch of celebrities, including supermodel Heidi Klum, Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy, Napster founder Shawn Fanning and David Hasselhoff of Baywatch fame. The first to air will feature basketball coach Bobby Knight and will appear during the Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball tournament on Saturday. Max provokes an outburst from Knight by poking fun at his recent retirement.

Max is actor Bronson Pinchot, a former Broadway star who got his first film breakthrough as Joel in Risky Business. He later played Serge, an associate art dealer in Beverly Hills Cop in 1984. His accent skills also landed him the role as Balki Bartokomous in the TV show Perfect Strangers in 1986. (ADDED: Monday, April 14, 2008)

"If people look at it and say it's silly, that's a good thing," Ellis says. "There's so much screaming going on, you have to take a chance and do something odd and silly. You're gaining their attention and a few moments to get them to stop and think about your brand."

VW needs more people to think about it. Sales were down 6% in the first two months of this year vs. the same period a year ago, and 2007 sales were down 5% from 2006. VW, Europe's largest automaker, has just 2% of the U.S. market.

"You have to steal market share today to grow," says Ellis, an award-winning marketer who was with Volvo for four years before joining VW in December. "You have to steal from Honda and Toyota. You have to understand those brands and their appeal and create an exciting new voice for VW together with exciting new vehicles."

Ellis and Miami ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which created the Burger King "King," chose a Beetle to represent VW because they see it as a pop-culture icon.

For a few weeks, Max and the celebrities will be the campaign's centerpiece. Then they will take a back seat as ads begin for the introduction of specific models.

The first of those ads will be for the new Tiguan in May.

Other campaign details:

•TV ads. Each celebrity is used to represent a particular trait of the brand. German supermodel Klum, for instance, tells Max that he's a feat of beautiful German engineering. Hasselhoff, a pop music star in Europe, talks with Max about being a European best seller.

"It's very easy to go out and hire supermodels and superstars and just have them say they represent your brand," Ellis says. "Every person we chose is unique and has a unique take on something we want to say about our cars."

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