At the supermarket the other day, I grabbed my usual rations of ice cream and capers and headed towards the 10-items-or-fewer line. Upon arriving, I found myself behind a stooped-over older woman in the process of unloading 12 items from her cart (damn straight I counted). The cashier whipped the purchases past the scanner with abandon, ringing her up to the tune of $30.01. But when it came time to pay, the woman’s fingers couldn’t easily manipulate her wallet; one could have gained Congressional approval for a new currency in the time it took for her to reach into her purse, fumble around for the wallet, unseal its clasp, finger through the bills to find the proper denominations and attempt to decouple them from among their papery peers.
Being an important person with manyimportantthings to do, the delay annoyed me to no end. Thus I assessed the situation with my usual clear-eyed brio and sprung into decisive action: I fished a penny out of my coat pocket and gave it to the cashier, sparing all parties to this slow-to-unfold drama another 27 minutes of waiting as the woman attempted to pluck one from the trenches of her change compartment.
Based on the reaction from the woman, cashier and person behind me in line, you’d have thought that I offered a kidney to a stranger. “You are a wonderful young man,” the woman said, her eyes beaming like those of a Hallmark grandma prototype. The cashier chimed in with a sincere “nice, guy, really nice”; the other dude in line went the approving-nod route. I paid for my items and bolted out of the store - right past the woman pushing her cart at the pace of negative-four miles per hour, it should be noted.
The moral to this longer-than-it-had-to-be story: sometimes you do the right thing for the wrong reason. It comes to mind here - segue alert! clear the landing decks! - because I had the same response after watching Audi’s little morsel o’ marketing in advance of tomorrow’s release of Fifty Shades of Grey (finally, the movie about subtle discrepancies in the color spectrum that America’s chromatophiles have been waiting for). The video makes me think differently about the Audi brand - but very possibly not in the way that Audi intended.
The clip, which stars Saturday Night Live’s Vanessa Bayer, semi-reenacts what the title frame refers to as “The Elevator Scene.” While this likely has greater parodic appeal to those who have read the book, Bayer’s faux-seductive come-ons do a fine job at pre-deflating the movie’s self-seriousness. She holds a pair of handcuffs and loopily tells the stranger unfortunate enough to be riding alongside her that “I’m not a cop.” She backs another into a corner of the elevator and chirps, “What position is this that you’re teaching me?” She responds to heads-up about a buzzing sound in her bag with “it’s not my phone” and a smile.
In the clip’s final vignette, Bayer grabs for the car key fob of another stranger, this one tall and wealthy-looking. Then we flash over to a shot of a selectively illuminated Audi grille, a plug for the flick, and we’re done.
My best guess as to what Audi is attempting to accomplish with this kind of wink-wink-oh-we’re-just-the-tiniest-bit-naughty brand tie-in? Maybe they’re hitching a quick and easy ride on the coattails of the Fifty Shades hype, or maybe they’re staking a claim as the luxury sedan of choice for emotionally distant kinksters. But what I get out of “The Elevator Scene” is this: Holy cow! Audi might actually have a two-dimensional brand personality!
Audi’s marketing, it seems to me, focuses on three things: performance, performance and performance. In TV ads and cultural tie-ins, Audi has attempted to perma-brand itself as a super-performing luxury car, the one that can be counted on to provide unequaled speed, power and handling during leisurely rides on America’s uncramped and pothole-free roadways. If Audi were a tree, it’d be an oak. If Audi were a foodstuff, it’d be steak. Audi is LeBron. Audi is Iron Man.
Here, however, Audi is funny. The clip is the first evidence suggesting that Audi’s brandketeers have genuine wit in their marketing arsenal as they attempt to nudge past Mercedes-Benz and BMW and claim their place on the performance throne (please don’t suggest the idiotic “Doberhuahua” 2014 Super Bowl ad or the forcing-oneself-on-one’s-crush-is-totally-OK “Prom” 2013 Super Bowl ad as evidence to the contrary). Given how much personality those other two brands have flashed along the way - this column wouldn’t exist if BMW hadn’t sparked the brand-content-creation era with its BMW Films shorts - Audi can’t thrive on performance alone.
“The Elevator Scene” might be a throwaway bit in Audi’s mind, one designed to tease a bigger presence in Fifty Shades. But it’s precisely the type of approach a one-note brand ought to be taking as it attempts to evolve in consumers’ minds. Too, the calibration is perfect: Audi announces its presence with a small wave, rather than with fireworks and symphonic flare. I could be misreading this thing (and Audi’s overall intent) completely, but “The Elevator Scene” does more to reinvent the Audi brand for me than the 300 high-budget performance-r-us ads that preceded it.