FIAT Panda. The Fabulous Box.

Klaus Erich Küster wrote a piece of history with his Fiat Panda campaign more than forty years ago. On "Panda Day", the advertiser tells us how the whole thing came about. And he also opens up that the campaign was not a stringent and purposeful development, but a chaos that lasted almost ten years.
Text Klaus Erich Küster
Photo FIAT

At one point everything did fit together by chance. By chance, the client didn’t have enough money to run double pages. By chance, the campaign that had already been sold had to be scrapped. Suddenly the opportunity was there for “Die tolle Kiste” [“The Fabulous Box”]. The campaign was initially rejected by seventy-five percent of the test audience. That’s how it started, back in August 1980. The very first ad – comparing the merits of a Panda versus a cow – became advertisement of the week. This was followed by bronze from the Art Director’s Club, then gold, silver (for the radio campaign), again gold, and the Gold Effie, which assesses advertising effectiveness. And in 1988, its ninth year, it was campaign of the year. But, as already mentioned before, it wasn’t planned.

16 January 1980: On the train from Turin to Milan. The mood is good. We drove the car for the first time. We like it very much. We tell the Italians. They like that very much. Lots of Barbaresco in the tastevin in Turin. Only I drink Pellegrino because I want to run the 1,500 meters under four minutes again. Someone says in a slight Piedmontese accent: “That’s a fabulous box.” Sounds like a slogan to me. I write down “fabulous box” in my notebook. You never know.

February 1980: Of course, we want to do something fabulous. Not the usual advertising banter. Not the typical automotive superlative blah blah. It was an auto campaign that made me become a copywriter: VW. Think Small. That genius from New York. That’s what we had to do too. Totally new. Totally fresh.

April 1980: We get tangled up in six different ad campaigns. Our favorite is campaign number five: “Gesucht: Fahrer, die den Club of Rome nicht für eine neue heiße Disco halten” [“Wanted: Drivers who don’t think the Club of Rome is a hot new disco.”] Remember? The second oil crisis. Suddenly small was beautiful. Do you also remember the headlines? They later appeared in the “Tolle Kiste” campaign. Suddenly all that chaos fit together. And the huge pile of ideas that went into the other approaches was put into the creative reprocessing plant.

“Wanted: Drivers who don’t think the Club of Rome is a hot new disco.”

Remember? The second oil crisis. Suddenly small was beautiful. Do you also remember the headlines? They later appeared in the “Tolle Kiste” campaign. Suddenly all that chaos fit together.

May 1980: The client buys the “Wanted” campaign. But they only want the “Fabulous Box” part after the introduction. A minor disappointment.

June 1980: The budget is only half as big. We don’t get a double page spread. The “Fabulous Box” works wonderfully as 1/1 pages. Thank goodness for the red pencil.

July 1980: Test. The campaign fails. Seventy-five percent of the audience thinks it’s nonsense. Twenty-five percent thinks it’s great. The advertising manager, Hans-Joachim Richter, shows he has insight and courage: “With 2.5 percent market share, twenty-five percent approval is not bad. Let’s keep going!” Slow exhale. The first final drawing goes out.

Summer 1982: The motif that we have been working on for so long actually looks quite harmless: “Es kam der Abend, wo er ihr zeigen wollte, womit sein Vater jede Menge Kies machte. Sie jedoch wollte endlich wissen, wie die umklappbare Rückbank funktioniert.” (“The evening came when he wanted to show her how his father made a lot of dough. But she finally wanted to know how the fold-down rear seats work.”) Period. Full stop. The end.

We showed the customer exactly sixty-four suggestions. Hans-Joachim Richter told us sixty-three times: “Not bad. But you can do better.” Well, thank you very much. Every proposal that went to Heilbronn was preceded by around forty attempts. Makes 2,400 headlines – just to sell one!

At the very end it was like in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. There the author describes the feeling that someone has when he has an idea. It is like a dog trying to get through the door with a long stick in its mouth. He growls and pushes, but the door is too narrow. He turns his head thoughtfully, and suddenly he slips through. Today, almost ten years later, we went through about two hundred cycles. Wow!

6 December 1983: It’s official: the German Office for the Prevention of Unfair Competition certifies our sense of humor! Quote: “Comparing the two advertisements with each other, one comes to the conclusion that Fiat has responded using the same means as Deutsche Bahn, although the lack of seriousness of the comparison is even more pronounced in the Fiat advertisement as in the railway ad. Actually, the advertising by Fiat merely took that of Deutsche Bahn literally.

“The whole thing was done in a humorous manner that in no way belittles Deutsche Bahn, instead clearly making the reader aware that apples have been compared to oranges, because a second car has other tasks to perform than a railroad locomotive.”
Oh, yeah!

The gentlemen from Deutsche Bahn are very clever: they don’t file an injunction, instead sending us six free first-class tickets for the Carnival in Basel. We can’t work for a week after that.

We showed the customer exactly sixty-four suggestions. Hans-Joachim Richter told us sixty-three times:

“Not bad. But you can do better.” Well, thank you very much. Every proposal that went to Heilbronn was preceded by around forty attempts. Makes 2,400 headlines – just to sell one!

Mai 1985: The campaign produced a lot of new business. But also prevented business. We’ll never get a budget for a prefab house. The one about the acid waste dumping also left a bad taste in some people’s mouths. We even got protests about the currywurst bit. Kurt Tucholsky once said, “Whenever someone in Germany makes a good political joke, half the country sits up and complains.” We had no theory about the campaign when we made it. Well, perhaps one: it is definitely better if your (i.e. the client’s) ad is so interesting that people turn back to read it again. If it isn’t, then you’re throwing your money out the window. The times when you would tap the fontanelle with a mallet in the hopes of shaking the brainstem to the core, are – yes, what? Unfortunately, not over! The most famous living advertiser in the world, David Ogilvy, said:
1. You cannot save souls in an empty church.
2. You cannot bore people into buying your product.
The man is rich. You can believe him. I even got a letter from David Ogilvy: “Dear Klaus Erich, there have been so many imitations of my famous Rolls-Royce ad, that I wonder that you take party in this silly procession.”
That gets under your skin. We meant the “Grandmother” ad with the snoring canary as a homage, not as a kick in the shin.

    Je vous demande pardon.

I even got a letter from David Ogilvy:

“Dear Klaus Erich, there have been so many imitations of my famous Rolls-Royce ad, that I wonder that you take party in this silly procession.” That gets under your skin.

We meant the “Grandmother” ad with the snoring canary as a homage, not as a kick in the shin.

November 1988: For the first and so far only time there is a public reading of an advertisement in the German Bundestag. Speaker: opposition leader Hans-Jochen Vogel. Subject: tax reform. Duration of the speech: one minute forty-three seconds. Monetary advantage for the client: DM 373,000. That’s how much Fiat would have had to pay for the corresponding airtime. Clients are calling, the phone lines are clogged up, the radio stations are ringing us up at 8:39 in the morning (!) requesting an interview. I’m at my desk. The whole thing is somewhat reminiscent of a joke making the rounds at our agency. Says the graphic designer, “Let’s assume that no one reads the text.” To which the copywriter says, “No problem, we read everything out loud anyway.”

December 1988: The Panda campaign is Campaign of the Year.

1989: The Panda campaign has been running in magazines for ten years. Finally, we manage to sell a film. It runs much like the latest ad, titled “Christmas”. And it runs in lots of cinemas. Before Christmas.

1990: The Panda campaign goes into its second decade.


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