“Intelligence is the new rock and roll,” is Audi’s beard-stroking ad campaign. I was first exposed to it at a San Diego launch of the otherwise excellent A4 sedan, and immediately sought a vaccine to get its hipster smugness and cultural appropriation out of my system.
See for yourself, and consider Audi’s tangled explanation for what it’s all supposed to mean:
It is no longer rock stars that are making headlines, drawing the crowds, and staying up all night. Intelligence is the new rock and roll, and the all-new Audi A4 is the power chord.
Yet it’s pointless to get worked up over rockers “selling out” to advertisers, when even righteous deities like Bob Dylan are cashing corporate checks. What really grinds me about the Audi campaign is the way it plays on every cliché and conceit of the imaginary Audi owner. In the process it brings the brand’s advertising winning streak to a crashing halt.
Until now, Audi campaigns have brilliantly cast the brand as the fresher, hipper alternative to you-know-who. We’ve memorably seen R8s and other Audis crashing old-money Mercedes parties, deflating pretentious BMW owners, or waking a Lexus Stepford Couple from their suburban anomie. Simple plots, simple takeaways, sharp execution.
The “Intelligence” ads do show Audi design and technology – including its latest Virtual Cockpit and MMI system – in a desirable, appealing light. But the brand message is too literal this time around. A cardigan-clad Valley Guy ties his Keds before taking a bow with the suits at the New York Stock Exchange; his bespectacled face is plastered on a fawning Wired cover as the Start-up King. Yeah, we get it: The world’s Mark Zuckerbergs are natural Audi men, though Zuck is actually so cool that he drives a Volkswagen GTI instead. The ad is filthy with Silicon self-regard, most ridiculously when some pigeon-chested coder leaps to his feet in unseemly triumph at a mythical computer competition. His acolytes cheer like he just used World of Warcraft to cure breast cancer. It feels like watching a high schooler's classroom daydream, not least because his adoring throng is largely hot (but intelligently hot) women, rather than Jonah Hill lookalikes rolling polyhedral dice.
The spot doesn’t even have the courage of its nerdy convictions, cutting in non-sequitur fashion to football players tackling the shit out of each other. Clearly, some ad exec (or Audi itself) chickened out and realized that not every future Audi prospect is on the chess club: The coach and players pause to analyze hitting technique on a tablet. See, jocks are also smart, just not so smart to know when they’re being condescended to.
When I spoke with Scott Keogh, Audi of America’s savvy president, he agreed that Audi has cultivated an image most automakers would kill for. Sure, Audi has a long way to go to catch the sales leaders at Mercedes, Lexus and BMW. But the brand has remarkably doubled its American sales to 200,000 in just five years, and Audi continues to cast itself as the underdog. The disruptor tweaking the establishment. I threw a music analogy at Keogh, the idea of alternative rock bands – U2 the best example – who inexorably become the thing they once revolted against: fat, rich and complacent. The Clash probably said it best:
I believe in this and it’s been tested by research
He who fucks nuns, will later join the church
Keogh frankly acknowledged that, as Audi shoots up the sales charts to join Mercedes and BMW, it’s going to get harder to keep up the pose, to play the feisty up-and-comer.
“Every indie act and underdog brand eventually joins the establishment,” Keogh says.
Ultimately, that’s why the Intelligence ads fail, because Audi is plainly trying to have it both ways. Cars or tech, even the most cutting-edge corporation is never as hip, rebellious or youthful as it imagines itself to be. You might fake it by donning a band's t-shirt, might even sneak into a photo with Iggy Pop. But we still know a Suit when we see one.