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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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