By Julie Hennessy
February 6, 2017

If you didn’t catch Audi’s Super ad on Sunday, it missed in its effort to empower the women of today. But before I detail what went wrong with the ad, it’s worth taking a look at where marketers at the automaker were likely coming from.

From a distance, Audi’s strategy makes sense. It comes shortly after a heated US presidential race where the first female nominee from a major political party lost to a man who was criticized for being sexist. It also comes the same month women’s protests emerged across the world. Audi was responding to the times, and likely catering to an underserved market by aligning itself with a message of female empowerment. Strategically, that is not a bad call, for several reasons: Women are either “influencers” or the primary “choice makers” when it comes to choosing the family’s automobile at most US households. However, Audi, along with other major German luxury automakers BMW and Mercedes, has long focused on the idea of status and accomplishment to appeal more to men than women. It would make sense for Audi to catch on to an often overlooked market.

What’s more, this has been a tough year for German car brands, with the Volkswagen scandal at the center of the news and consumers and regulators questioning the automaker’s trustworthiness. So it would make sense for Audi to embrace its current and future female drivers and differentiate itself from the masculinity of other German brands to set itself apart.

Those intentions are admirable, but Audi’s execution Sunday night was mixed as best. In its Super Bowl ad, a father watches his daughter in a cart race wondering whether she will be judged based on her gender, and whether she will be paid less than a man despite her talents.

At first, it’s moving, but it’s also confusing. Remember being taught to be careful about double negatives in writing? I do. The statement “I can’t never win!” is just plain confusing, which leaves it to be misinterpreted. In an attempt to communicate inclusiveness and support for women, the ad asks viewers painful questions, including “Do I tell her that her grampa is worth more than her grandma? …. That her dad is worth more than her mom?….That despite her education, her skills, her drive, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets?”

Certainly, the intent of this ad is to communicate that “Audi does not believe any of these things. However, the explicit negative statements are so strong that the implicit positive ones don’t stand a chance.

Think about it. If someone stops by and tells you ‘I don’t believe that you are stupid and worthless,’ does it make you feel great? I doubt it. For many women, these words of support from Audi represent just one more unwelcome reminder of the negative perceptions women are up against.

Even if women manage to find the positive message in all this negativity, the link to the Audi brand is weak. The positive pay-off at the end of the spot can’t overcome the negatives that precede it. Yes, she wins the race, but only after it told viewers that no matter how well women do, it won’t be taken seriously. The little girl in the go-cart gets to ride home with her dad in a nice looking Audi, but is that adequate consolation? Audi tries to claim that they are a force for positive change through their equal pay for female employees. But will this materially impact how individual consumers think about a luxury automobile brand choice? I’m not convinced.

Some critics complain that Audi is trying to hitch its brand to a movement for its own gain. Certainly, this is true, but that isn’t the problem per se. Of course, they want to sell more cars. I don’t mind that they’d like to sell more cars to women. The problem is that this execution just doesn’t work.

What can other marketers learn? Alliance with the right cause can elevate and differentiate a brand. People love to believe that their brands share their values. There are likely to be opportunities to speak persuasively to women about the pleasure of driving a luxury car. But people splurge on luxuries when they feel good about themselves and the world. This spot sells more despair than hope.

And it doesn’t make me feel like dropping $80,000 on a new A8.

Julie Hennessy is a clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

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