The Internet is in the proverbial tizzy about Audi’s “feminist” Super Bowl advertisement, in which the automaker comes out in favor of equal pay for women.
At first blush, the spot seems to be nothing but the usual corporate slacktivism, a feel-good fluff-vertorial making a “brave stand” in support of an issue that was decided long ago. I’m reminded of Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant portrayal of Commodus in Gladiator, arriving in full armor as soon as he can do so without any risk. “Father, have I missed the battle?” Well, Audi, you’ve missed the war; if there’s a place in the United States where women are actually paid significantly less for doing the same job as men, it’s not evident from what I’m reading.
After watching the one-minute advertisement carefully, however, I understood feminism, or equal pay, is the last thing Audi wants you to take away from it. The message is far subtler, and more powerful, than the dull recitation of the pseudo-progressive catechism droning on in the background. This spot is visual — and as you’ll see below, you can’t understand it until you watch it and see what it’s really telling you.
Let me tell you up front: chances are you won’t like what Audi has to say.
The scene is a “soapbox derby” race. Not the real Soapbox Derby, mind you; that’s a highly competitive event held on a nationwide basis involving both young boys and young girls almost equally. Nor is it a kart race, despite the fact there are plenty of very skilled girls in youth karting. The cynic in me says it wouldn’t serve the message to show a real sport where girls are already a big part of the story. To find a world where girls are the underdog in youth racing, we need to go to the past.
And that’s why this fake race is shot in a location, and in a visual language, deliberately evocative of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” It’s that same anonymous California landscape, the same dust in the air, the same scrub-brush-lined roads to nowhere. This race doesn’t happen in 2017; it happens in 1982. This is the youth of today’s 50-year-old Audi buyer, not the way it was but the way it was shown to them way back when. It certainly worked on me; I felt the immediate tug of nostalgia for a place I’d never been. As the narrator starts to drone on about “What will I tell my daughter … ” the camera starts scanning the grid.
Let’s meet the first racer. The visual language here is so careful. It’s a boy — older, thuggish, wearing a converted catcher’s mask. And he’s fat. Remember that in the modern idiom, the cherished assumption set of the Eloi, fat means poor.
Generic Fat Thug Kid #2. This one looks almost like a sumo wrestler; his skin is dark.
Ah, here’s Dad, the “Mary Sue” of Audi customers. The tallest person in the crowd — tall means rich — and effortlessly handsome, dressed in the exercise mufti of the NorCal leisure set. Note that he’s surrounded by black people, who are shorter and smaller than him. As we’ll see, there are no black kids in this race. The African-Americans are just here to play a supporting role. It’s fabulously, hilariously racist, but it’s only visible for a moment, just enough to reconfirm your subliminal perceptions.
Let’s start this race. It’s a nice touch that a child throws the flag; the suggestion is that this event was put on by the kids, the way Scot Breithaupt started the first BMX races in the sunny SoCal Seventies.
Is this the daughter of our handsome protagonist? Don’t get it twisted; the dad, not the daughter, is our protagonist. The daughter is an object of desire. Not sexual desire, but objective desire. She’s something you want to have, not the person you want to be. But I doubt this is the daughter. Let’s look at the visual language. She’s got a coarse, chunky prole face, obvious braces, and an old-style varsity jacket. In other words, she’s poor, just like the fat boys. And just in case you can’t read the message, they’ve actually put stripper glitter on her face — or the suggestion of it, at least.
The inclusion of this other girl seems like a staggering error, because she gets dusted right at the start of the race. If this story is about girls overcoming all odds, then having another girl who is at the back of the pack doesn’t serve the narrative. But the narrative, I assure you, is quite operational. Have you figured out yet what this spot is really about?
In a quick shot, we see the real daughter, shown at the top of this post. She’ll obviously be a gorgeous woman when she grows up. Now let’s meet her first opponent: a Traditional American Boy Right Down To The Fucking Peter Fonda Captain America Helmet! This is the enemy. Isn’t that a lovely inversion, and isn’t it so in line with that modern catechism? He sneers at her — she’s just a girl. Yet his glee doesn’t last long; she gets around him in a hurry. Then we get a beautiful, evocative shot of the landscape. Presumably there’s a bunch of kids on Kuwahara BMX bikes riding around the next hill over.
Uh-oh. In the words of the infamous rap song, the fat boys are back. Look at this kid. Look at the vacant expression of malice. If you want to know how the upper-middle class sees their inferiors, this is a good snapshot of it.
Let’s get another shot of the kid so you can see just how chunky he is. Chunky means poor.
He’s about to smash the heroine, but right as the narrator says “intelligence,” she pulls some sort of milled-aluminum E-brake much like the one you’d see in a half-million-dollar rallycross car. See the “Do Not Attempt” at the bottom of the screen? I can’t tell if that’s the lawyers at work or a bit of subtle brilliance from the filmmakers.
Disaster for the fat boy! Note the quick shot of a skull and crossbones on his car. What, is this some kind of tween-aged death race? And why are there two kids in another one of the cars? Oh, wait, I know. This is another movie evocation from the same era: The Road Warrior. Again I’m gobsmacked by the brilliance of whoever directed this spot. The visual language is a perfect shorthand of the Mel Gibson disaster flick: remember the chunky, mean-mugged bad guy and the cars that had two people in them for no reason?
It’s the kid in first. Again, if you’re up to date on your Mad Max characters, you’ll recognize the Bruce Spence “Gyro Pilot” character from Road Warrior and Thunderdome. Narrow face, crazed expression, unnecessary goggles. Well, we know he’s going to lose and the girl is going to win.
Which she does, and now we return to the dad. In yet another brilliantly subtle bit of shot selection, the black “allies” around him have disappeared. Did they get bored? Instead, we have a hillbilly dad: baseball cap, ringer-style T-shirt, gritty poor-folks face like “Rowdy” in Days of Thunder. And boy, is he pissed. He takes his hat off and makes an angry motion. He must be the white-trash dad of one, or more, of the fat white-trash kids with their football war paint. It’s a short but massively effective shot. The good white people win, the bad white people lose.
There’s some great acting here, even if it’s a little squicky with all of the rapt devotion. If you can find a girl who looks at you like that… marry her.
Having won the race against all odds, it’s time to quit the scene and get back to the gated community.
I assume the car is here because the client demanded that the product be shown, if only for three seconds. It’s actually a really lousy thing to do to the ad agency, because not only is a modern Audi absolutely incongruous in this 1982 dreamland, it raises an unpleasant question: Where’s the soapbox car? But even if you assume that the hicks who run this impromptu sanction seized it for technical inspection afterwards — I sure as hell would, it ran from near-last to first, doing that shit in Spec Miata will earn you a free engine teardown — it raises yet another, more difficult question: How’d the soapbox derby car get to the race in the first place?
There’s only one logical answer to that question: Super Dad and Super Daughter have a pit crew, some group of dingy, unsung mechanics who bring the car to the race the same way that my main man John Shevel preps and hauls my Neon to races so I can swan up in my 911 at the very last minute, throw on a helmet, and screw up my qualifying session. That’s what this supportive, high-net-worth feminist dad and his genetically superior daughter did: just like any good progressive Eloi, they outsourced the greasy work to the Morlocks. And that’s a shame, because if you ask any competent Soap Box Derby participant, they’ll tell you the race is won in the prep shop, not at the hill.
Well, if you’ve been reading along, I think you’ve figured out what the real message of this Audi advertisement is, but just in case you’ve been napping I will spell it out for you: Money and breeding always beat poor white trash. Those other kids in the race, from the overweight boys to the hick who actually had an American flag helmet to the stripper-glitter girl? They never had a chance. They’re losers and they always will be, just like their loser parents. Audi is the choice of the winners in today’s economy, the smooth talkers who say all the right things in all the right meetings and are promoted up the chain because they are tall (yes, that makes a difference) and handsome without being overly masculine or threatening-looking.
At the end of this race, it’s left to the Morlocks to clean the place up and pack the derby cars into their trashy pickup trucks, while the beautiful people stride off into the California sun, the natural and carefree winners of life’s lottery. Audi is explicitly suggesting that choosing their product will identify you as one of the chosen few. I find it personally offensive. As an owner of one of the first 2009-model-year Audi S5s to set tire on American soil, yet also as an ugly, ill-favored child who endured a scrappy Midwestern upbringing, I find it much easier to identify with the angry-faced fat kids in their home-built specials or the boy with the Captain America helmet.
At the end, what does this ad do? It just reinforces our natural biases. Poor is bad, rich is good, and most importantly, rich people deserve their fortune because they are inherently better than the rest of us. You might not like that message, but it’s been selling cars for a very long time. If Audi wanted to try some authentic activism, they might consider showing us an African-American man or woman who overcame a tough upbringing to become an actual customer, or perhaps a differently-abled person who’s achieved enough to buy himself an S8 as a reward for his hard work. But that’s not terribly aspirational, is it? Who wants to be those people? And, by the same token, who wouldn’t want to be that handsome father lifting his beautiful daughter out of someone else’s winning race car?