Audi’s Latest PR Disaster Reveals How Society Thinks

How an innocent image spawned massive outrage

Niklas Göke
Aug 4 · 6 min read
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Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash

Imagine this: You’re on a family trip to the mountains. As you drive up the winding slopes in your wagon, you reach a nice viewpoint and resting place.

Everyone gets out of the car, and you all munch on some snacks as you walk around the parking lot and enjoy some fresh air. As you turn around, you spot your four-year-old daughter, casually leaning on the grill, sporting her cool shades, and eating a banana. You smile and decide to snap a picture.

That picture could look something like this:

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Image via Audi

Pretty cool, right? What a nice memory!

Unfortunately, Audi’s PR people won’t have any nice memories from posting this exact picture on their Twitter account. In fact, they’ve probably had nightmares ever since.

In promoting their top-of-the-line A4 model — the RS 4 wagon — the image above thoroughly missed its mark — and caused a shitstorm of extraordinary proportions — especially among the German community. Let me translate some of the comments for you.

Anonymous tweeter “Yet another Boomer” said: “What sexist crapshit. What a shitty car. Cars like this kill children. Could you show any clearer that you don’t give a shit about the environment, life, and the future of our children? You’re a rotten shit-company, please delete yourselves.”

Commenter Andreas wrote: “The rim alone would probably cost me more than one month’s salary. Who’s supposed to buy these environmentally destructive, expensive pieces of crap? You deserve to go bankrupt, German car industry.”

Here’s another: “I see pedophile advertising. And child abuse. Disgusting and despicable.”

And another: “Little girl with phallic symbol in hand. Of course, great…”

And, finally, “Rudi the Knight” had to add: “Every day, kids are run over by shit cars like this. Go to hell!”

Now, I’ve always been a car guy, but I’m not blind to the industry’s problems.

Their excessive focus on more — more sales, more consumption, more luxury— has led Germany to a place where we have, on average, more than one car for each person between the ages of 18 and 60. That’s a lot of cars, and those cars are causing a lot of CO2 emissions — and those emissions are bad for the climate.

I understand that people want a break, that they want companies to do better, and that the old narrative of personal pleasure without regard for resourcefulness is fading away. But when I look at those responses and see there are thousands like them, filled with hate, misinformation, and, quite frankly, behaviors just as bad — if not worse — than what they accuse the company of doing, I can’t help but wonder: Is this the best society can do?

A single rim for an Audi RS4 costs about 400€. The minimum wage in Germany is about 1,600€. So yes, it’s expensive, but Andreas would get a full set of wheels for one month’s salary — if he made the bare minimum — rather than just one.

The new RS4 emits 210 grams of CO2 per driven kilometer. That’s a lot, about 20% more than the average in Germany, but it’s also 30% less than the 288 grams the first RS4 blasted into the air in 1999 — from a car that’s 50% more powerful while using 25% less fuel. Cars, even the expensive, fast, luxurious ones, are becoming better.

Historically, Audi has sold about 7,000 units of this car per generation. Ferrari sold around 25,000 of its 458 model, a car that costs four times the price — and emits 307 grams of CO2, nearly 50% more. I doubt the anonymous boomer has researched any of this.

Finally, in 2018, a total of 79 kids under the age of 15 were killed in motoring accidents. That’s sad, but for a country with more than 80 million people, I think less than one in a million is impressive — especially considering how many cars we have and how much we drive. It’s definitely a far cry from Rudi’s estimation of multiple kids per day.

Every day, the world presents us with ideas, news, and information. What you think, say, and do about these things says a lot more about you than it says about their source.

Without human interpretation, a photo is just a photo, a sound is just a sound, and words are just words. What we choose to see matters more than what’s placed in front of us, and that perspective is informed much more so by who we are than by whatever we are looking at.

It’s mindblowing to me how anyone could look at that photo and see child abuse, traffic casualties, or sexual innuendo, but people do. People do every day, and it reveals what we choose to believe, say, and think.

If you see racism, sexism, and environmental destruction around every corner — especially if you’re not part of the affected minority — ask yourself why. Is it possible that some of the very patterns that make you angry have entered your own thinking? I think it is.

I think it is possible because we all carry those patterns. You, me, and everyone you know. No one is perfect, but that doesn’t mean we’re not all trying our best with what we have.

Unfortunately, some people just have very little — have always had very little, both emotionally and materially, because they started out in a bad spot and it hasn’t gotten better — and that’s why we’re still where we are. Why we still spend so much time being at odds with each other.

None of our cultural problems are easy and fast to fix, but all of them are fixable — and only if we fix those can we tackle the larger issues together.

The fixing starts with changing our faulty thinking. It starts with information, research, and not posting or perpetuating false claims on Twitter.

It continues with positivity. With optimism, looking for the uptrend, and trying to see the beauty in everything rather than the worst humankind has to offer.

Finally, it ends with believing in others. With trusting them to learn to do the right thing — just as you slowly learn it yourself over time — and with giving people the benefit of the doubt.

An evil company would be made up of only evil people. I don’t think evil companies exist. Individual, bad actors? Sure. But a company at large whose sole purpose is to get one over on you? Nah. That’s not really how the world works.

Case in point: Audi’s instant apology, in which they explained their thinking behind the ad. “We hear you and let’s get this straight: We care for children,” the company wrote. “The Audi RS 4 is a family car with more than 30 driver assistance systems, including an emergency break system. We showcased it with various family members. We hoped to convey that even the weakest traffic participants could relaxingly “lean” on the RS technology. That was a mistake! Audi never intended to hurt anyone’s feelings. We apologize for this insensitive image and ensure that it will not be used in future.”

Have you ever thought of a clever metaphor or pun that missed its mark? Did your friends scratch their heads as they were trying to get the joke? It seems that’s what happened here. I too had a much simpler interpretation of the photo: What a cool kid, posing on a cool day with a cool car. There really needn’t be more to it.

If a company posts something that offends you, ask yourself a simple question: Is there a scenario in my life in which I might do — or at least encounter — the very same thing?

Chances are, there will be. Maybe, that very scenario has already happened. But as long as you can think of something, it’ll show you: The people who came up with this are not so different from me.

They might still be wrong, but it sure helps to remember this before you tell them — because they too will interpret your words only with what they have. The more carefully you choose them, the more likely they will understand.

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Niklas Göke

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Better Marketing

Marketing advice & case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and efficiently.

Niklas Göke

Written by

I write, you follow. I promise to treat you with respect and value your time, every time. Hit the button. Join 80,000 others. ⤵

Better Marketing

Marketing advice & case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and efficiently.

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