Camper Chic

Sunday, June 1, 2003

The 1960’s and 70’s era Volkswagen camper van has achieved an iconic status. From surf and hippie buses for round the world exploration, to visits to the sea-side with your gran, the VW bus has been synonymous with freedom and adventure for over 40 years. But more recently they have become chic.

Camper Chic? -> French Connection’s spring/summer 2003 theme

Many people around my age (24) I talk to about our van will reminisce about the bus their Grandad had or the hot summer days out as a child when their legs would stick to the plastic seats. But like so many icons, it seems the VW bus has become a button that the marketers can push in consumers heads. It’s being used to trigger an association with carefree summer freedom.

It was a month or more ago when I was on my way home from work that I saw the marketers at work. As I passed through the wholesale fashion district to the north side of Oxford Street in the West End of London, I saw two vintage split screen vans parked in a chainlink fence enclosure. They looked immaculate and I stopped for a moment. It took a second before the graphics and branding registered. It was covered in FCUK logos, even the surfboards on the chrome roof racks had the simple text logo. The penny finally dropped when I read the main graphic in a 60’s font, “Welcome to Fcukiki Beach”. With cringe I realised this was probably the theme for French Connection’s summer range of clothes.

Indeed the FCUK theme of the summer is ‘fcukiki beach’. The shop and billboard graphics are full of tanned surfers and vintage split screen buses. But the clothes are the same urban range as before and don’t even feature a pair of board shorts that the guys in the adverts wear! That’s what makes the branding grate. It’s a shallow attempt to rub surfer and VW bus chic off on their products. Of course that’s nothing new. Sex is used to sell everything that it has no relationship to. But it’s interesting to see the image of the VW bus is strong enough to centre in a campaign of this sort.

Chic chef? -> Jamie Oliver in his splittie

Vans have recently featured in several other adverts and programmes. Channel4’s teen soap Hollyoaks, has featured a camper for some time as a comedy ‘passion wagon’. TV chef Jamie Oliver used his lowered and beefed up Samba in Adverts for Sainsbury’s supermarkets. One featured him camped out in Italy eating cheese and biscuits, and another involved him knocking a window-box off his window ledge and through the glass roof of the van. A tongue-in-cheek Freeserve advertisement featured hippies in a flower power bus, with the strap line, “Be Free”. The ad casts the camper in the role of a fast and reliable tool of freedom. The analogy being having a camper van is like having broadband! I’m not sure all bus owners would quite agree with that.

Hippy Chic -> Campervan=Internet… err yeah.

So why is it that our vans are chic? This is my theory.

Hippies and surfers have used the VW bus for its practicalness over the last 40 years. It allowed them them to tour the world as their lifestyle rquired. This has been seen by the working masses who look with envy at the freedom the surfers and hippies enjoy. A simple link is established and the VW bus has become synoymous with escape. So when middle-class boys and girls get educated and start work, they begin to aspire to a lifestyle which has all the things they don’t have. Money. Time. Freedom. They work for their money, but aspire to have time and freedom… this aspiration manifests itself through an idealised desire for a campervan.

Like Pavlov’s dogs that were conditioned to associate the ringing of a bell with being fed, we react with rose-tinted warmth to the notion of the campervan. And the ad men know that. Take Jamie Oliver as an example. He sells an aspirational lifestyle via his programmes, books and ads. His van is an accessory to the broader image he’s creating; relaxed carefree wealth, good food and freedom. So when cheeky, chirpy, chappie Jamie’s hops in his dub to go down to Sainsburys, the subliminal message is that fun free people shop at that supermarket.

It seems that ‘camper chic’ is an idealised notion, based on a partial reality. The camper fantasy convieniently misses out the breakdowns, low MPG and constant battle with rust. But desipte the cost and effort, those of us who own VW campers can see exactly why people aspire to have the sense of freedom we do. They might be chic but our vans feel even better than they look.

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