There are errors of commission, and errors of omission. There is carelessness versus malign negligence. There is a tin ear versus "hear no evil." And there is plowing through barricades as if there were no danger ahead.
The history of Super Bowl ad fiascos is rich with malpractice, and Sunday gave us some more. I’ll brush aside the many examples of celebrities being paid vast sums in the service of no coherent selling idea, or even connection to the nominally advertised brand. Those are fixtures of this event, year in and year out. I also won’t much explore the inherent dramatic tension between the pharma ads for IBS diarrhea and opioid-induced constipation. They played to a draw, leaving toenail fungus to win the Repulsive Bowl.
Because the only thing worth discussing is Audi, and the spot called “Commander.”
It begins with (fake) historical broadcast audio and video of a NASA lunar mission, and images of the mementos of its commander. Then we see this man in the present day, age about 70, in front of his television, silent and vacant of expression. His eyes have no life in them. His daughter-in-law removes his meal, untouched on its tray.
"Not hungry, huh?” she says, and heads to the kitchen where her husband -- the commander’s son -- has just entered.
“Is he eating?" the kid says.
The son enters the living room. There’s his dad, now staring into, well, space.
Now, I ask you, what is this scene depicting? Or more to the point, what does it seem like more than a family struggling with Alzheimer’s? Or anyway, some sort of elder dementia, or at the very least deep clinical depression. So it is what happens next that is unfathomable. The son approaches his silent father.
"OK, Commander, come with me."
They walk slowly outdoors and see what is sitting in the driveway: an Audi R8 sports car. Top speed: 205. Other feature: curing brain disease.
The kid offers the key to Dad and Dad silently accepts it, as the sounds of David Bowie’s "Starman" begin to fade up, intercut with more fake historical footage of the young commander heading into space. Dad, poor catatonic Dad, finally cracks a smile.
"Choosing the moon brings out the best in us," says the onscreen type. No, it doesn’t. It is easy to imagine someone at Venables Bell & Partners coming up with an idea about a car bringing an ex-astronaut out of his Earthbound torpor. What is impossible to believe is that nobody flagged that the realization of the ad was a grotesquery. There is no way for an Alzheimer’s family to watch this without gasping. Twitter, of course, lit up. Not sure what David Bowie did in his grave, but I’m going to guess it was at 205 mph.
This obscenity took me back 17 years to Super Bowl XXXIII and the Just for Feet spot, which featured a Humvee full of armed white people tracking a black Kenyan runner across the veldt, shooting him with a tranquilizer dart and forcing sneakers on him. It was an outrage so extreme, on the Friday before the game I begged the agency to pull it. "We think it’s humorous and fun," the agency rep replied. What he should have said was, "Really? Racists? Neo-colonialist? Maybe we should have another look."
They instead drove through the barricade. Now I suppose it’s possible that nobody at any stage of this production noticed that their "bored" ex-astronaut presented as an extremely debilitated man. It’s possible, because of myopia by immersion. But I don’t believe that is what happened. I believe that at almost every stage some voice of caution was raised, and squelched. Which is not carelessness, not obtuseness, not myopia. It is negligence.
And if so, it should be punished. Because this was not just insensitive, not just a trivialization of tragedy, but a perverse insult to millions. To sell a sports car. Simply disgusting. Astonishing and disgusting.