Weekly comment bait: Audi’s “Green Police” Superbowl ad

I didn’t watch the Superbowl because I hate America was on a plane, so it wasn’t until Monday that I became aware of chatter about the ad for Audi’s A3 TDI clean diesel car, recently named the “Green Car of the Year” for its fuel efficiency. Apparently — I haven’t watched yet — the ad portrays a “green police” squad that patrols for environmental crimes.

The New York Times thought the spot was “misguided.” David Roberts thinks that the ad’s implicit acknowledgment of the mainstreaming of environmental values places Audi “ahead of the curve.” Joe Romm can’t decide whether the ad is the best or worst green Superbowl ad ever (surely a limited field), but found the humor off-key. This guy thinks the ad contains veiled Nazi references (!). Geoffrey Styles found the humor harmless and the overall message “smart and timely.”

Intriguing! Let’s watch:

OK, I just watched it twice. Tonally, the ad is a bit…weird. It does seem to start off by invoking some well-worn anti-environmentalist tropes (“greens want to control every aspect of your life blah blah”). But the green police themselves aren’t particularly made out to be objects of ridicule or spite. In fact, it seems the real target of the ad’s satire is police procedurals like COPS, and even this parody is pretty soft.

I tend to agree with Roberts that the ad implicitly accepts the cultural dominance of lifestyle environmentalism, even if it doesn’t quite endorse it. In this regard, the ad mostly reminds me of standard-issue beer commercials, in which put-upon everymen are forever trying to escape sissification at the hands of their wives and girlfriends. Beer commercials — for the most part — don’t portray wives and girlfriends as ogres or shrews. Rather, they play off cultural clichés about gender roles. Ladies gotta be ladies; dudes gotta be dudes. In the Audi universe, it’s taken for granted that we’re all supposed to separate our recyclables, even if we’re often confused or annoyed by the new rules.

Like gender conflict, this is potentially a rich vein for comedy. Say what you will about the tired stereotypes in beer commercials, the good ones are funny. Which brings me to the main problem I personally had with the Audi ad: I didn’t laugh. Some bits of it are kind of amusing (e.g., the enjoyably surreal anteater and the flight of the hot tub perp), but, again, the tone seems off. In the end, the hero smugly drives off in the greenest car of the year. It’s as though after 45 seconds of fratty capering, the schlub in a Budweiser commercial puts down his beer and announces to his wife that he loves her and couldn’t imagine his life without her. Major buzzkill.

But there’s no arguing from taste, and it seems the Audi ad has been generally well-received. As with any very expensive piece of advertising, the marketing calculation here is pretty clear. Despite its high fuel efficiency, the A3 has an internal combustion engine drives like a “real” car. I’m sure Audi doesn’t want to pigeonhole their fancy car as a hippie-mobile by marketing it with the usual images of clouds, trees, and wind turbines. I’m also sure their research revealed that many consumers feel somewhat guilty about the environmental impact of their consumption choices, but are also confused about what to do and mildly annoyed at having to adjust their habits. Et voila, a marketing campaign is born.

On a more substantive note, diesel cars offer a very quick way to reduce transportation emissions during the transition to electric, so let’s hope Audi is successful in taking away market share from conventional gasoline-fueled cars.

On a less substantive note, The Onion does environmental satire right.

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  1. Jane Taylor - February 10, 2010

    We seem to be missing the point here. Saving the earth doesn’t have to be boring and tucked in. Environmentalism can be funny. Even Al Gore can laugh at himself. This ad does the same. I mean look at the vehicles the Green Police drive: the Segway is the nerdiest vehicle since the dawn of transportation. The implication is that shrinking your carbon footprint is cool and sexy. It’s pretty simple.

  2. Tony Welsh - February 10, 2010

    Bottom line is that they are selling a relatively green car. Hard to see why they would intentionally upset their target audience. (Or AUDIents!) Diesel is the best technology we have right now for those who need more than commuting range. They are also doing an electric coupe, btw.

  3. Bob Sarban - February 10, 2010

    The more radical your environmentalist sympathies, the more confused you are by the ad. For the rest of America, the ad was both funny and a clear commentary on the thought and conduct police who are trying to dictate every aspect of our lives in the name of saving the planet. The fact that the Super Bowl was played while the East Coast was shoveling out of record cold and snow, and the game was played in 45 degree Miami, only reinforced the point: global warming is a fraud and the nagging, nanny state enviros are a bunch of authoritarian, police state lunatics. Great ad.

  4. Anonymous - February 10, 2010

    The ad was not deep, but superbowl commercials never are. It was satire, but the police state overtones are more reminiscent of the far right than the far left. Diesels have lower carbon emissions but until this current VW/Audi “clean diesel” engine, could not meet emissions standards for NOx (a smog forming chemical) and often emit 20x the particulates of a clean gasoline fueled car. To complicate it this new model won’t run biodiesel, from what I’ve heard. I’m not sure it has green cred. Those who know and live green, probably won’t buy the car. We’re into more than posing and appearances. And we live this way because it’s simply the right thing for the planet and future generations.
    I’m waiting for the Nissan Leaf. Enough of this petro-fuelishness.
    I’d love to have seen a profile piece during this major American ritual, about the greening of big league sports events, venues and such. I’m pretty sure such efforts are still in their infancy though, it’s more about the $ still. I saw plenty of spots from the NFL thanking their fans…
    Luckily it was an exciting game to watch, some great plays and well matched teams.

  5. Adam Stein - February 10, 2010

    Bob’s ignorant rant actually highlights another point that I was going to make in the post, and then cut for length: my guess is that the ad plays very differently based on audience.
    I think Bob is partially right. The ad is most likely to raise hackles among the deep green set that is less sympathetic to either the notion of a “green car” or to broad jokes about the supposed hardships of conservation.
    But the ad is also likely to go completely over the head of angry nuts like Bob, who are going to take the “green police” conceit as a literal critique. People like Bob are going to miss the ad’s implicit acceptance of environmental values, and are instead going to read it as an attack on “authoritarian, police state lunatics.” (I wonder how Bob would feel if we went to Audi’s web site and sat through its earnest admonitions about not wasting paper napkins.)
    The group most likely to enjoy the ad in the way that it is (I think) intended is the light green segment in the broad middle. This is the group that wants to reduce its impact, but will be ready to laugh at the frustrations of doing so.
    Whether Audi intended the ad to play this way to different audiences is unclear. In general, it strikes me as a very difficult balance to strike, and personally I think the ad is only semi-successful in doing so.

  6. Liz - February 10, 2010

    Another way the ad worked (like all good advertising) — it evoked the experiences of its target audicence by its choice of music. I am in what I assume is the target demographic for purchasing an Audi and “Dream Police” was popular when I was in high school. (Unlike my 24-year-old godson, who could not afford an Audi in his wildest dreams, and has probably never heard that tune).
    That said, the following morning I couldn’t remember for the life of me what product the spot was advertising, memorable though the spot might have been.

  7. Bob Sarban - February 10, 2010

    Audi is in the business of selling cars which appeal to a certain demographic. The ad was very effective at reaching those buyers with a message that Audis are quality cars whose drivers get ahead in the world (thus the Audi alone in the fast lane at the end).
    The environmental message was equally effective, in that the demographic they are playing to has largely reached the conclusion that massive collusion and fraud underlies the global warming claims, not to mention the hypocrisy of the Al Gores and RJF, Jrs who fly about in their private jets while lecturing to the rest of us about how we should change our lives to save the planet. The Audi ad hit directly at the private jet environmentalist crowd by ridiculing the absurdity of the Left’s agenda.

  8. Adam Stein - February 10, 2010

    That’s the problem with marketing to our demographic. When you reach a certain age, it’s easy to remember pop songs from the ’70s than what you had for breakfast…

  9. Adam Stein - February 10, 2010

    Hi Bob,
    Although your trolling happens to be fulfilling an instructive purpose today, just be aware that your future comments will be deleted. I’m mentioning this just to save you some time.
    To others, note again, how easy it is for Bob to misconstrue the ad. He seems to have utterly missed the fact that the ad markets the Audi A3 as the “Green Car of the Year” and concludes with the tagline “Green never felt so right.” While not necessarily strongly supportive, the ad certainly accepts an environmental agenda. Bob can’t see this at all. Interesting.

  10. Woody - February 10, 2010

    In support of Adam’s point, The old tale of the blind men describing an elephant comes to mind. The inability of people to grasp the big picture, it seems to me, is what drives controversy. Thus we spend most of our time trying to convince people with vision impairments of the reality that we perceive. It’s a never ending process, extremely wasteful of time, energy and resources. We think of ourselves as highly intelligent beings, but I doubt that a truly intelligent observer from another world would describe us as such. All we can do is to continue the effort to educate and hope we’ll be successful enough.

  11. Diane - February 10, 2010

    I found the ad upbeat and amusing. One point is that many of the small things that we obsess over (and no, Bob, the nanny state has mostly left this nagging to those of us in the citizenry who wish to gently encourage our loved ones to be more aware of the truly dire impact of our collective consumption) have less impact than some of our major purchases. Once one has chosen a vehicle or a place to live, changes in their use often merely nibble around the edges of their carbon footprint. While choosing a fuel-efficient vehicle and a smaller home close to work keep the footprint modest on a daily basis without moment-by-moment fussing.
    No, this is not a “deep green” product, but advertisers and corporations are unlikely to be the prophets that lead us out of hyper-consumptive habits. Quite a lot of people aren’t ready to go there yet, so if they can be induced to take some steps, it’s better than nothing.
    Also, I am not quite sure what the aardvark was doing, but I really liked it, so the ad gets a green light from me!

  12. Jodi - February 10, 2010

    I guess I’ll need to re watch the ad also. Or maybe this is an example of how it plays differently to different audience. THE most important issue in the world today to me is the environment and I loved it and laughed through it (until I discovered it was an ad for an expensive luxury car that runs on diesel which is – in my mind – barely a solution). I saw it as environmentalism was going mainstream and that the “born-losers” we’re the ones that we’re so far behind the times they didn’t even understand the simplest things they needed to do be a inhabitant on planet Earth. Even though it was an Audi commercial, I thought it was a small victory that big business was assuming that even the biggest members of the materialist cultural knew they should (and wanted to) do better by the environment.) I guess even if they were making fun of us, it’s a good sign. It means there are enough of us to take seriously enough to make fun of us.

  13. Elvis - February 10, 2010

    Whoa, why censor Bob Sarban? While I don’t agree with his point of view, he’s not being patently offensive in his remarks, and the give and take with him is the most interesting part of this whole thread. Muzzling him because (…well, why exactly?), and calling his rant ignorant in your first reply to him is the wrong move, and needlessly polarizes what could be an informative debate. It also serves as yet more fodder for those who think that the environmentalist press cannot tolerate discussion, let alone dissent.
    seems a little…fascist, to me (wink, wink – to quote a critique of the ad in question found elsewhere on the web).

  14. Jesse - February 10, 2010

    I just thought it was a bad ad. Satire is fine, but its tweaking the people that would then want to buy the car, isn’t it? If you are an environmentalist, then would you go out and buy a car that was making fun of you? And if you thought the satire was on target and that all this environmentalism is a bunch of nanny state garbage, why would you then go out and buy a car based on its “green”-ness? It would have made more sense for it to end with a guy in a Hummer holed up in a cabin in the woods gunning down the green SWAT squad Ruby Ridge style.

  15. Stu Barwick - February 10, 2010

    I wrote a review of the ad on my blog the other day… feel free to read the whole thing if you like.
    But here is the short summary:
    I like Audi’s ad for because they didn’t lose their brand’s “soul” when going green. Too often companies feel going green means communicating through “save the world” messaging. But that only works on people like me (others like me and probably you) who already acted based on the idea of saving humanity/the environment.
    Audi took a green(er) product and positioned it in a way that should connect with their target audience. If more Audi buyers switch to the greener alternative, then Audi has done their part to start converting people to a greener lifestyle. (Baby steps) Yes, Audi isn’t the greenest car company but they don’t claim to be either. They are starting down the path and if a few luxury, performance car buyers take those first baby steps towards a more sustainable lifestyle that’s great.
    In the end, mass change will come when we convince people like bob (above) that sustainbility works it is good for the planet, our species and the economy…so alternate messaging tactics are important.
    But that is just my opinion

  16. Tony - February 10, 2010

    I agree with Jesse. As someone who cares about how we leave our environment for future generations yet has to drive some, I’m not encouraged to buy a car made by a company that pretends to be environmental while showing environmentalists as extremists. It didn’t surprise me though–a car company can’t be green because it has to encourage us to buy their cars and drive them more and more. It has to hold off environmental realities (perhaps by showing them to be extreme) as long as possible to make whatever profits it can make. My favorite ad is one done by Kaiser medical group–it encourages people to get out of their cars and walk everyday as the first step in living a healthy life (everybody is encouraged, nobody is trashed). What a concept.

  17. Dave - February 10, 2010

    I’ve always been a big fan of the A3, and think the TDI version looks and sounds great, but I see this ad as being potentially damaging to the environment. It may very well be an effective ad, and result in a few more “green” Audis being sold, but I don’t think a commercial that portrays environmentalists as fascists can be considered a good thing.
    It’s incredibly difficult for environmentalists (or people that just think radical concepts like recycling and composting are a good thing) to get through to some of the close-minded people in this world, and an ad that makes the green community seem like a bunch of A-holes makes their job that much more difficult. It’s impossible for an environmentalist to maintain credibility with someone when they’re portrayed as a lunatic. If you were on the fence about global warming or whether or not it makes sense to recycle, this ad could be just enough to turn you in a negative direction. Well done Audi, at least you’ll sell a few more cars.

  18. gatcheson - February 10, 2010

    Even poking fun at environmentalists is certainly a lot better than car commercials pushing power power power (without thought to oil consumption and pollution). It may be a baby step, but the car *is* a step in the right direction, especially compared to its competition or other Audis like a 14-mpg Q7 SUV. A lot of the negative comments on the commercial seem to fit well with what it was parodying. Perhaps we need to re-read a post from last week

  19. djrabbit - February 10, 2010

    I found the ad laugh-out-loud funny, esp. the Styrofoam cup bit at the end.
    But I also liked it from an environmental perspective. It taps into and acknowledges the anxiety that many viewers probably feel about “having” to go green; but it also makes clear that those viewers _do_ have to go green. Going green is no longer optional, at least from a social-status perspective. (If conspicuous consumption was the old way to improving your status, green behavior is the new way.)

  20. Todd Lamoureaux - February 10, 2010

    Different audiences and/or viewing things through different lenses impacts the interpretation of any media dramatically. My 14 year old son’s immediate response was to the “Green Police” reference and thought it was racist due to the connection to the Green Police of Nazi Germany (You mention above and I believe one of their roles was to ensure no one escaped from the death camps.) I, on the otherhand, at age 40 and a sustainability consultant found the add to be dull and somewhat silly.
    To go back to my son’s interpretation, I find it amazaing that a German based company and their marketing people did not recognize the potential connection to the Nazi’s, yet a 14 year old, american high school student from New England immediately did.

  21. Dom - February 10, 2010

    Bob also demonstrates how the lack of science education in this country is hampering our ability to tackle the challenges of global climate change. Not only does he not understand the difference between weather and climate, he also makes a common mistake typical for the scientifically illiterate. He uses a single event (unusually cold weather in the east) and gives it equal strength of evidence to all of the rigorously collected scientific evidence. This is analogous to claiming that because my uncle smoked for years and never got lung cancer that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. My guess is that Bob wouldn’t really care about what other people thought if he didn’t already feel a little guilty to begin with.

  22. Jen Thilman - February 10, 2010

    The ads I remembered the most and that caught my attention were the ones with a environmental message, the Audi commercial being my favorite.
    I enjoy seeing more mainstream messaging (espcially in superbowl commercials) that raise awareness to the importance of caring for our planet. There will always be narrow-minded people like Bob Sarban who think big snow storms confirm that global warming is a myth. They will not “hear” the message of climate change or recognize that where the storms hit today is no where near the northern areas they hit 20 years ago. The climate IS changing, there is no denying that, and the majority of the people are intelligent enough to know we all need to do something to reduce our influence on that climate change.
    Thank you for increasing the awareness by discussing the messages being heard on tv these days.

  23. gooseduckstevens - February 10, 2010

    I thought it was pretty funny.

  24. Kai - February 10, 2010

    Love the song!

  25. michael - February 11, 2010

    I see something different…within the microcosm of my own home the very message portrayed in the Audi commercial gets played out on a daily basis…there is constant banter about who is recycling or conserving…each of us taking on our own environmental police role from time to time helping the household maintain some level of environmental responsibility. The messages are almost always fired from a cannon of humor…humor can help trigger action…scolding alomost never works…at least that’s how my personality works.
    The message was entertaining for sure and the appearance of the A3 was almost unimportant – except for Audi. I guess if I saw something evil in this spot I might also have been grouped with those who found Barnie to be an evil little purple monster…

  26. michael - February 11, 2010

    …regarding the animal – Badger??? Ant Eater??? An endangered specie whoes role no doubt was to help snif out environmental undesirables…just a thought.

  27. Elvis - February 11, 2010

    Wow – I know Bob S. made a comment here; I read it yesterday, then went back to pass it along to someone today and it’s now gone. Adam Stein, I really had hoped you’d have reconsidered your stance. Shame.
    (insert Bob S’s comment here)

  28. MCR - February 11, 2010

    Oh hell, I’ve been an environmentalist for over 25 years, and I thought it was extremely funny.
    I know here in the US, being green is a fad for many, but Germany has been taking climate change seriously for quite some time and most of the citizens are doing something about it. Therefore, they can poke fun at it, but with our half-assed commitment, it would be weird.
    Honestly, I wish that stuff went on in real life (people getting in trouble for not recycling).

  29. Exwave - February 12, 2010

    i personally found it funny i had no idea that “green police” was a nazi thing though…but im sure Audi didnt mean for it to be viewed in that manner..anyways everybody has their own opinion soooo i loved the commercial and i love audi it was a win win for me.

  30. Ryk - February 14, 2010

    I thought the ad was funny, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth because I know people (family members) who would use it to point out to me how the world is being run by so-called “leftists” (like me) who want regular people to bear the burden of going green, not corporations or government. (My flag-waving brother wouldn’t even ride in my Toyota hybrid over the holidays because it’s not American-made) My common sense says that the economy will help “sell” green efforts because of the cost-savings possibilities. I once filled my bro’s American-made gas tank at a cost of $56 due to $2.50 gas and 15 mpg. I can’t believe he drives such a gas hog considering he lives in a rural area and having to drive everywhere and he has a fairly low income. Why would you use up so much of your income when you don’t have to? I think at some point, people will look back at US cars’ dismal fuel economy in disbelief that we ever drove such inefficient cars rather than demanding better from American automakers.

  31. brucer - February 18, 2010

    man, I had a bagel for breakfast AND I can recite all the verses from Cream’s Tales of Brave Ulysses…uh, what was I goina’ say….