Audi Super Bowl Ad: Working Both Sides of Street? (Updated Feb. 10, 2010)

(Revised Feb. 10, 2010. My conclusion was rushed, because I wanted to leave the office before the snowstorm suspended bus service from D.C.-area metro stops. Revisions below are in italics.)

If you missed it Sunday, the Audi Super Bowl ad is on Youtube, and it’s a hoot. The ad promotes the Audi A3 TDI clean diesel. The main selling point, surprisingly, is not that this car, which won a “Green Car of the Year” award, is good for the planet, but that if you drive it, you won’t be hassled, bullied, and jailed by the “green police.”

The ad tries to work both sides of the street. It attempts to appeal to those who believe SUVs are destroying the planet — and those who resent eco-elitists and busybodies telling them how to live.

The hilarious South Park episode, “Smug Alert” (Season 10), frames the issue with which the Audi ad execs seem to be wrestling.

In the episode, clouds of smug from “Toyonda Pious” sales in South Park, George Clooney’s acceptance speech at the 78th Academy Awards, and San Francisco’s pretensions as a progressive city all coverge, creating a “perfect smug storm” that threatens to destroy everything in its path. The citizens of South Park scrap their hybrids just in time to avoid annihilation, although thousands of homes are destroyed. However, it is too late to save San Francisco, which “disappears up its own @!*hole.”

At the end of the episode, Kyle, echoing the famous NRA slogan (“Guns don’t kill people, people do”), argues that hybrids are a good thing, it’s only when hybrid owners become smug and act like they’re better than everybody else that the danger arises. However, like the liberals who don’t want a gun in the house, fearing they might use it, the people of South Park decide they are not ready to own hybrids without becoming  smug — “it’s simply asking too much.”

The Audi ad tells preening, greener-than-thou progressives ‘here is the car for you.’ At the same time, it lampoons the authoritarianism of green busybodies, allowing the rest of us to admire the car’s mpg rating without feeling we have to identify with Al Gore or the Sierra Club.

Or, at least, I think that’s the objective. Another way to put is the Audi folks want to have their cake and eat it. They want to be both green and independent of green.

My suspicion is it doesn’t work. Eco-activists are likely offended by the ad, whether because it mocks them or because it comes too near the mark of what life would be like in a society that heeds Al Gore’s injunction to make “rescue of the environment” the “central organizing principle for civilization.” On the other hand, people who resent officious bureaucrats may remember little about the ad except that Audi has something to do with “green police.”

Lastly, Audi is foolish if it expects to prosper under a green police state. The Audi A3 TDI gets above 40 mpg, but its fuel still comes from Big Oil. The Gorethodox won’t be satisfied until cars are all-electric, and the electricity comes from solar panels and wind turbines. Even if levened by tongue-in-cheek, greener-than-thou feeds the perception that global warming is a “planetary emergency” and government must restrict our liberties to save us from ourselves.

What do you think? Watch the Audi ad, and post a comment!