Thursday, January 28, 2010

Audi: volunteering for a black eye

A story running the rounds on Twitter last night drew my attention:

The link led me to a blog by Danny Brown, which outlined the PR nightmare Audi may be about to enter with its Super Bowl ad campaign.

Audi is reportedly using its Super Bowl airtime to advertise its "A3 TDI diesel, which gets 42 mpg highway," and is priming the pump for the ad with a series of YouTube videos like this one, introducing the "Green Police."

In his blog, Danny Brown cautions about a potential PR backlash against Audi:
"The campaign is based around a new creation called the Green Police, who will spearhead a social media program to build interest in Audi’s ad at this year’s football showcase. The Green Police enforce ways to protect the environment, and encourage people to a better understanding of environmental issues. There’s currently a series of YouTube mock education videos as part of the program, as well as a Green Police Twitter account.

The problem is, there’s already been a Green Police enforcement organization, but not one that you’d want to be associated with. This Green Police was part of the Nazi persecution and execution of millions of Jews in the Holocaust of the Second World War.

The implications of Audi’s choice of name for their campaign could be huge, especially since Audi is a German company. The first question is obvious – didn’t anyone at Audi’s PR or advertising arm/agency do any research?"

Since that blog post was first published yesterday, it has received more than 100 comments and has been tweeted more than 275 times (including a re-tweet by me, with the introductory note "Really?"). A debate has grown up around whether this actually constitutes a major issue, as Brown suggests, or whether it's not really a big deal.

The arguments I've read against this being a big deal include:
So, is this a big deal or not?

Even if you don't personally think so, from a PR strategy perspective, it doesn't matter. As soon as someone takes reasonable exception to anything an organization does (and especially if that someone has an audience), you've got a potential issue on your hands.

Can you always predict what will offend people? Of course not.

Can you reasonably predict that a campaign with resonances of the Holocaust will offend people? I think so.

But you can't avoid obstacles you don't know about.

Before getting too far down the road with creative, research whether there are any historical or cultural connotations to a proposed campaign/company/product name that might create issues. A quick Google search would have turned up the Nazi reference, and I have to believe no member of Audi's PR/marketing team would have considered that and decided to go ahead with it anyway.

Audi's "Green Police" message was supposed to be about environmental stewardship (and, ultimately, the A3 TDI diesel); now, at least in some corners, the public discussion it has inspired is about the company's either disregard for or ignorance of the dark history attached to its new campaign's name.


  1. wow... that is a lack of research! Especially since yesterday marked Holocaust Memorial Day, the 65th anniversary of the closing of Auschwitz! bad timing for this ad campaign.

  2. You're right - though I don't think there really is a good time.

  3. Do you remember a few years ago there was a case of a British furniture company marketing a girl's bed under the name "the Lolita"? They protested that no one at the company had ever heard of the book before. Which, if it were true, is sad in itself.

  4. Hi Melanie,

    Thanks for continuing the discussion and offering your take on it as well (along with your commenters).

    One interesting thing that's come out of Audi's response is their statement that they carried out intensive early research and found no red flags. They also ran the ads by numerous groups before airing, including the Jewish community (this was before the YouTube campaign and my post about it).

    The thing that stands out about this is that if they did research intensively before running the ads and found no red flags or connections, why did they feel the need to seek approval from the Jewish community specifically about a car and the environment?

    Thanks again for your views,


  5. Thanks for commenting, Danny; it's certainly an interesting response -- not sure what to make of it. "Intensive research" must at least have included a Google search?

    Regardless, the fact that we're all still talking about it (and it's not just us, of course -- I just saw another blog this morning on the issue at is the bottom line. Audi's research may have suggested that this shouldn't be an issue -- but clearly, it has become one. To me, at least, either the research was faulty or the decision-making based on that research was.

    Lesson 1: Do your research.

    Lesson 2: If your research turns up anything that could be inappropriate or inflammatory (note: giving the heroes of your campaign a name associated with the Nazis = potentially inflammatory), change the campaign -- unless, of course, inflammatory is what you're shooting for.

    Lesson 3: Getting the green light from a limited audience does not mean no-one will have a problem with it. In 2010, when social media has given everyone a soapbox and a megaphone, it isn't worth the risk to go ahead.

    Personally, I think the YouTube "Green Police" videos are awful; that may be why I have such a hard time understanding their decision to stick with that concept despite the potential for backlash.