February 14th, 2010
Let’s talk about Audi and the choices it seems to have made regarding its newest advertising work.
Audi USA’s new campaign is based on the “Green Police,” a band of roving law enforcers who try to protect the environment. “You picked the wrong day to mess with the ecosystem, plastic boy,” says a Green Police enforcer to a clueless grocery shopper in Audi’s Super Bowl ad. “A man has just been arrested… for possession of an incandescent light bulb,” says a reporter. Here’s the ad:
There are even educational YouTube videos, like this one that tells you how many napkins to take per sandwich.
But if your brand had a history that was, you know, linked to the largest human massacre of all time, how funny would an ad have to be for you to go ahead anyway?
Audi’s problem is that there’s already one Green Police in history – a Nazi organization associated with the forced labor and extermination of millions of innocent people. Audi is one of the companies that converted its factories to make automobiles and heavy artillery for the Nazis. Both Audi and Volkswagen have been named in multiple lawsuits filed by Holocaust survivors and their families over the years.
So the social media campaign and the TV ad comes out… and some people are upset. Others race to defend Audi’s advertising process, e.g. Audi did lots of research prior to launching the campaign, and it showed the ad to Jewish organizations and Holocaust survivors who were not offended.
These comments just reinforce Audi’s deafness. Did Audi know in advance or not? Which would be worse? And as for the defense that the company showed the ad to some Jewish people… there were thousands of people of multiple faiths caught up in what happened during WWII, and there are human beings of all faiths who could be offended by such a reminder. We are all citizens of the world – and we are all consumers with money to spend on new cars. And if I’m not in the market for a car, I can assure you that I talk to someone on Facebook or Twitter or at work who is – someone who values my opinion.
This isn’t about religion, it’s about brand. It’s about judgment. It’s about customers.
What was the judgment that Audi made here? As PR flak Melanie Lockhart says on her blog, “Lockstep on PR, “Even if you don’t personally think so, from a PR strategy perspective, it doesn’t matter. As soon as someone takes reasonable exception to anything an organization does (and especially if that someone has an audience), you’ve got a potential issue on your hands. Can you reasonably predict that a campaign with resonances of the Holocaust will offend people? I think so.”
Others on the Web haven’t been so charitable.
Audi volunteered for a big kick in the gut. Why – for a social media campaign? To spend $3 million on a single :30 Super Bowl ad insertion, when said ad drags so much negative baggage with it? If I were CMO, I’d like to think that I never would have seen the concept in the first place, because my agency would have considered and rejected it. But if it had gotten to my desk and I’d reflexively typed “[Fill in the Blank] Nazis” into Google, it’d have been lights out. No chance to debate whether or not an ad may or may not offend anyone. Why take the chance?
In this case, there simply isn’t enough funny in the world to balance the scale. It’s not as if there’s “another side” to the Holocaust. This isn’t the same as being “offended” by a bunch of guys farting in a TV ad. Even if you are one of these folks – in the words of Help A Reporter Out Founder Peter Shankman on Twitter, “Nothing good can EVER come from a PR campaign involving Nazis.”
In a world where trust is a brand’s greatest asset, one’s very first filter has to be good taste. Audi had no reason to take this kind of risk. It makes cars that people love – one guy calls his Audi TT “lovable and charismatic.” The company doesn’t have any controversial point to prove, and the brand doesn’t need shock value. Why take this road?
And in case you think I’m being overly sensitive, or perhaps that killing the campaign would have been tantamount to censorship, you may have a tin ear. It’s not about us. It’s about the audience and the message you want them to receive.
Be tough. Put ideas to the test. If one person can “reasonably predict” a problem, don’t hogtie the work and your reputation by asking for a punch in the face. There are plenty of great ideas out there that won’t generate over 100,000* negative mentions on Google. Go find one.
* On February 14, 2010 a Google search on “Audi Nazis Super Bowl” yielded 107,000 results.
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