You might not have heard about it, but Audi ran a rather controversial advertisement during the Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago. If the Lords Of The Four Rings wanted to get people talking, they certainly succeeded, although not all the reaction was positive. Right-wing websites screeched that the ad was a “SJW hugbox” or a “feminist fantasy.” At the same time, the decidedly lefty Twitter hive mind was attempting to crucify Audi for offering a weasel-word response to queries about its own compensation policies for women. One rather suspects that the company did not forecast this kind of bipartisan draw-and-quarter when they were laying out their goals for their $10M Super Bowl spend.
My brief analysis of the ad spot was remarkably popular and it was linked out from all over the Internet. It was also very far from the only think piece generated by Audi’s gorgeous but problematic mini-film. The day after the Super Bowl, you could go anywhere from “Arf-com” to the “Last Psychiatrist” sub-Reddit to find a vigorous discussion on the merits of the ad. You’d be hard-pressed at this point to find someone who didn’t have at least a casual opinion on the subject.
With that said, I can give you a few names of some people who clearly didn’t see Audi’s paean to empowered, independent young women who are worth just as much as their male counterparts in the only scale that has ever mattered — cold, hard cash, naturally. These people, rather surprisingly, appear to work for Audi Atlanta’s promotional team.
Speaking personally, I don’t see anything wrong or sexist or Nazi-esque about this image, which appeared in a direct-marketing email forwarded to me by a reader. It fits my worldview pretty well. I grew up in an era and environment where moms spent their lives raising children and dads bought them cars to make that task easier. We didn’t know that we were racist and sexist and evil tools of the patriarchy. Our moms looked after us and our dads sat in the recliner in the evenings after earning the daily bread. Everybody was pretty happy, as far as I could tell. Most of my friends who grew up in this antiquated, hateful state of affairs grew up to be attorneys and doctors and successful businessmen.
Since then, however, I’ve been properly re-educated to understand how hellish and repressive the suburbs truly are. I’ve learned that women are only happy when they focus on their careers until the atomic clock of their fertility reaches two minutes to midnight, at which point they stop the game of musical chairs, marry the guy who happens to be sitting in said chair, and immediately pay a fertility specialist $250,000 to get one designer baby named Kayden with strong signs of autism-spectrum disorders and a light case of measles from lack of vaccination. How this is better than being one of the pretty 27-year-old mommies of my youth in Columbia, Maryland, I don’t know, but my opinion on the matter is no more valid than, say, that of the GEICO caveman, and for pretty much the same reasons.
Where we were? Oh, yes. Buying (or leasing) a new Audi for your wife or significant life partner. Doesn’t this seem like an awfully paternalistic thing to do? Like those uncanny-valley Lexus commercials with the red bows, this idea of just showing up with the Audi you’ve picked out for your boo-boo implies sorts of things about the male gaze, particularly the automotive male gaze. Shouldn’t she get to pick the car out herself? And shouldn’t she have to pay for it, since she makes as much money as you do, possibly more? What if you get her a Q5 when she really wanted an S5? (I’m joking here, of course.) Or maybe you chose lime green when she wanted a smart grey metallic? Nothing good can come from all of this independent action on your part, friendo. At best, you just agreed to make 36 payments on something that might annoy the hell out of your strong, independent female companion. At worst, you’re basically violating her by forcing your own choice in option packages onto her body.
I can’t believe anybody would really do this in THE CURRENT YEAR. Hell, I’m probably the worst throwback I personally know — I could have been one of the Germanic tribesmen in Gladiator’s opening scene — and I still got Danger Girl’s input on the subject before I ran off and bought her a Corvette. In the words of every stupid men’s magazine ever, don’t be that guy. The only vehicle that you can safely surprise your spouse with is a Lexus RX350 in silver. Anything other than that, you’d better call Kenny Loggins because you’ve just taken the highway to the danger zone.
With all of that said, let me tell you why I love this stupid email marketing campaign. It’s a perfect example of the difference between national advertising for an automaker and regional advertising for auto dealers. This subject is covered at length in the fabulous book Where The Suckers Moon, but I’ll give you the gist of it right here. National advertising, the kind approved and paid for by automakers, is all about the image and the style and the general desirability of the brand. Regional advertising, the kind paid for by dealers, is all about getting the mark in the door and shoving the metal out that same door.
The difference in tone between the two products is roughly equal to the difference in tone between Dwight Eisenhower’s command decisions and Sergeant York throwing a grenade. The manufacturers spend weeks in ad-company client meetings agonizing about whether there should be visible tire tracks behind a car pictured at a ski lodge. The dealers want the words “SALE BUY TODAY SALE DISCOUNT LIMITED TIME TODAY ONLY” in flashing neon letters. These two worlds cannot peaceably co-exist.
And that, my friend, is why Audi spent ten million bucks to show you a carefully constructed fantasy with a brief product shot at the very end, and it’s why Audi Atlanta has chosen a hastily assembled Photoshop image for a mass email to get people in RIGHT NOW THIS VERY MOMENT FOR THE SALE. One of these ads is trying to mold your worldview; the other is trying to make a couple of bucks in a hurry. The dealers hate the frou-frou manufacturer campaigns, because they don’t bring traffic to the showrooms. The manufacturers are profoundly unnerved by the crass dealer campaigns, which are basically the equivalent of your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving.
Unfortunately for both parties, they’re stuck with the advertising status quo, just like they’re stuck with all the other detritus of the franchise arrangement. The relationship between dealer and manufacturer is a marriage far more difficult and uneasy than any human pairing. And unlike the relatively antiquated, sexist, and unfashionable arrangements celebrated every February 14th, there’s no chance it’s going to go away any time soon.