Audi's new TV commercial takes a pointless shot at environmentalists

In the slog toward greener transportation, cars may be headed in the (approximately, generally) right direction. But even efficient cars still pollute, in the same way that cigarettes with filters and low tar are still carcinogenic. They're better, but not a clean slate by any means. What do you do when your product category is vastly more expensive, and inherently more destructive to the environment, than the alternatives?

For German carmaker Audi, the answer is clear: recast the conversation. Instead of contrasting Audi against bicycling, public transportation, and (ridiculously) the Segway in terms of cost and environmental impact, Audi contrasts them based on fun.
In a TV spot launched this week, Audi depicts a tired-looking man being jostled on the city bus; a clumsy bicyclist in the pouring rain, a sad helmeted man struggling through sidewalk traffic on a Segway -- and a sluggish Volvo, "powered by vegetable oil," getting passed by an Audi A3. "Many people are trying to do their part," says the voiceover. "Some just have more fun doing it." The spot advertises the car's "clean diesel" -- which is, as Autoblog points out, generally far cleaner than the car's advertised rating (42 mpg highway, 34 mpg combined).

Compared with other cars, the Audi A3 shines. So why denigrate those who, by all appearances, are passionately and often inconveniently working to "do their part" of bettering the planet? Some of whom may actually consider an Audi A3 the car to fill in the gaps between bike rides and bus commutes?

Belittling bicyclists won't convince them to trot to the dealership for an Audi -- it'll just anger people like Elly Blue and the rest of the BikePortland staff in Oregon. Belittling those who, out of financial or environmental concerns, ride a crowded bus in the morning -- especially those of various ethnic groups depicted on the bus (for shame, Audi) -- won't simultaneously increase their disposable income so they can afford a shiny new car.

"It's actually a very relevant point to make in critiquing this ad that people often don't have many transportation options beyond driving," Blue notes. "This ad is fascinating in that it takes for granted the myth that the only factor in what mode you use is your personal choice -- what you think is 'fun' or 'green.' Never mind the extra lane added to the highway, or the complete lack of bike-friendly route, or inadequate bus service. A lot of our daily transportation choices aren't really all that free, and the context is full of subsidy, lobbying, policy, and money that tilts the scales heavily towards cars and infrastructure that limits all other kinds of mobility."

And why does Audi compare a pretty, efficient car to modes of transportation like the emission-free bicycle? Is it out of carmakers' concern that bicycling is on the rise? Is it a disconcerting effort to influence policymakers to give their constituents more opportunity for "fun" instead of sensible, environmentally friendly public infrastructure?

It's sad, and as a marketing strategy, it's a bit bewildering. The car could by all appearances compare well against competing cars. So why ridicule other modes of transport -- and with it, those who use them each day, by choice or circumstance?

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