Why Audi Lost the Super Bowl of Advertising

On Sunday, an American ritual was renewed as millions became advertising critics for the night. Roughly half the Super Bowl audience was female, so it's no surprise that Audi received high marks for its spot entitled "Daughter."

The sixty-second spot, voiced by George Clooney, features a girl winning an old-fashioned soapbox derby over her less-than-friendly boy competitors. Clooney asks a series of rhetorical questions about what he should tell his daughter regarding gender equality. The spot closes with a super proclaiming:

Audi is committed to equal pay for equal work, progress is for everyone.

An accompanying press release from Audi claims:

Audi of America is committed to supporting pay equality, inclusivity, and the growth and development of all employees. The company has publically [sic] pledged to support ongoing commitment to women’s pay equality in the workplace and to foster a work environment that drives equality for all employees. Audi also instituted a graduate internship program where 50 percent of enrollment must be female establishing greater equality for our future workforce.

The commercial was beautifully filmed and edited. And who wouldn't want to have George Clooney as the voice of their brand?

But the spot has one fatal flaw -- the advertiser is a proven liar.

In 2010, Audi placed another ad in the Super Bowl. Like this year's spot, the 2010 version promised big things about an important issue confronting us: the environment. "Green Police" was a slapsticky vision of a dystopian future in which Americans are harassed by environmental cops. The exceptions, of course, were the lucky drivers of Audi's "clean diesel" technology.

I remember the ad making me uncomfortable at the time -- it felt almost too real. Don't get me wrong, I love the planet and plan to retire by sailing around it, but I'm also a civil libertarian who thinks the way to get people to act is through persuasion, never coercion.

Like the 2017 spot, the 2010 commercial was accompanied by an Audi press release. In it, the brand stated:

Every day, as we all embrace the Green Movement, we're finding our way to make the right choices. Audi is contributing with the Audi A3 TDI clean diesel, which was just named the Green Car of the Year by the Green Car Journal. In the Green Police ad, Audi reveals that now, American drivers have another green solution.

In late 2015, Volkswagen Group became embroiled in an emissions cheating scandal that also involved its Audi brand. Delicious irony -- here was a brand that had touted itself a leader in environmental stewardship only to be unmasked as a fraud of epic proportions.

As late as November 2016, new revelations about the extent of Audi's emissions scam were still coming to light. It was revealed that the scandal was not limited to diesel-engine cars, as previously thought, but included gasoline-powered Audi models as well.

So it was a curious choice for Audi to pat itself on the shoulder for yet another politically correct stand -- pay equality for women -- when its credibility was torn to shreds in its core competency: automobile manufacturing. Perhaps  Audi thought this would provide good cover from their credibility woes, or perhaps they banked on an inattentive public with amnesia. A pretty good bet, I admit. But I have a long memory and a nose for hypocrisy.

So what is the answer to George Clooney's questions? What should he tell his daughter?

I would tell her (and mine) that once a person has lied to you, then you can no longer trust that person. That if the person is truly repentant, they will find a way to make it up to you and rebuild the trust. But if they they try to distract from the extent of their dishonesty, you might as well put that relationship in the junkyard.