The same automaker that aired an ad about a young girl overcoming sexism during the 2017 Super Bowl is now facing a global backlash over a television spot that suggested husbands-to-be give their prospective brides the same scrutiny they do a used car — or horse.
The 30-second commercial shows the mother of the groom running up to closely inspect the bride-to-be, at one point opening up her mouth to check her teeth. She later gives a disapproving look at the young woman’s chest, which the bride quickly tries to cover up.
“An important decision must be made carefully. Only with an official certification can you relax,” the narrator says in an English translation of the Chinese script, the commercial then cutting to a shot of a new Audi vehicle.
The commercial, which was also aired in Chinese movie theaters, has sparked a local backlash and global outrage. “Would Audi air such a discriminatory commercial in Europe or the U.S.?” one post on the Chinese social media site Weibo asked. Translated from Chinese, the poster wrote, “It assumes romantic relationships for Chinese men and women are just like this: dominated by the mother-in-law, controlled by the male and with a passive female.”
There were nearly half a million posts, most critical, on the Chinese social media site Tencent, according to news reports.
For its part, Audi rushed to do damage control. "The ad’s perception that has been created for many people does not correspond to the values of our company in any way," the luxury arm of Germany’s Volkswagen Group said in a statement.
It appears the goal was to play off the Chinese stereotype of fussy parents who routinely find fault with their new family members. Adding that it “deeply regrets” the airing of the commercial, it said it was created by an agency working for the used car division of a joint venture it operates in China. Foreign automakers are required by Chinese rules to partner with local manufacturers.
Audi said it would launch an investigation and take steps to ensure the problem isn’t repeated. The automaker can’t afford to alienate Chinese buyers. The Audi brand is the most popular marque in the fast-growing Chinese luxury segment but faces intense competition from brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Cadillac, Lincoln and Lexus.
As in the U.S., Chinese women are becoming an increasing force in car sales. The flap over the Chinese ad, meanwhile, hits a company that had, barely a half-year earlier, received strong kudos for a spot that aired during the Super Bowl. While most game-day ads rely on humor, Audi chose to tackle a serious social issue. “What should I tell my daughter,” began the narrator of the 60-second spot, as he watches his daughter race on a go-kart track, “that she will automatically be valued less than every man she'll ever meet?"
Of course, it was still a car commercial, and eventually displayed an Audi S5 Sportback. But in sharp contrast to the Chinese commercial, the Super Bowl spot ended with Audi pledging equal pay for equal work, with the tagline, “Progress is for everyone.”
The Chinese commercial suggests that progress isn’t always a straight line.