Audi “It Couldn’t Be Done” Commercial: How Could They? [The Ad Section]
When I critique car commercials, it’s important that I remain objective and not be influenced by my feelings about the vehicle itself or the company that makes it. That said, I’ve long been a fan of Audi products and their marketing. In fact, two of my all-time favorite commercials are Audi spots: “Ahab,” the Moby Dick–inspired saga of a tow truck driver’s obsessive fantasy of one day “hooking” a Quattro that’s beached itself on a snow bank, and “Maranello,” a brilliant commercial in which an R8 prowls the streets of Ferrari’s hometown, evoking both outrage and envy amongst the gentry until it’s finally chased past the city limits by two regazzi on a scooter. And in the spirit of transparency, I should also mention that I’ve owned and loved a number of Audis. In fact, there’s an R8 living in my garage right now. So it pains me to say that despite my professional impartiality, I’m puzzled by “It Couldn’t Be Done,” a montage of historical Audi footage set to a reading of Edgar Guest’s iconic poem of the same name.
Guest was a British-born American poet whose uplifting verses were popular in the first half of the 20th century. “It Couldn’t Be Done” typifies his style. Given Audi’s amazing comeback after the hatchet job that 60 Minutes did on the company in 1986, I agree that the tagline, “This Is Doing the Impossible,” is a legitimate claim for Audi. But that’s not what this commercial is about.
It starts with the company’s founder, August Horch, and his commitment to defy the skeptics with innovative thinking. Horch was indeed an innovator. For example, he’s credited with setting the industry standard for positioning the steering wheel on the left side and for pioneering the concept of rear-engined race cars. And certainly I can understand Audi wanting to underscore that it pioneered the Quattro all-wheel-drive system.
But who, exactly, said these things couldn’t be done? Who “laughed and shook their heads,” as the commercial contends? Jacob Spyker built the first 4WD transfer case more than 70 years before Quattro was born, so Audi’s AWD concept was really a logical evolution of the concept. Impressive, yes, but not something that would conceptually “defy belief.” And most of the other innovations it shows in the spot—and thereby lay claim to—were made by other companies, including automotive assembly lines (thank you, Henry Ford) and disc brakes, a British invention that dates back to 1902. While Horch may have been a visionary, Mercedes’ Béla Barényi seriously out-innovated him with more than 2500 safety patents ranging from crumple zones to collapsible steering columns, so I’m not sure why Audi even dredged up ancient history (and a potential pissing match with a major competitor) in the first place. If it wanted to prove its break-the-mold prowess, more recent innovations like their industry-changing LED running lights and seriously awesome LeMans-winning hybrid R18 e-tron Quattro would have made the point convincingly.
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In fairness, I should point out that Audi simultaneously launched a series of four 15-second spots that focus on its modern-day innovations, but the quartet has little in common with this 60-second commercial. But here’s what really bothers me about “It Couldn’t Be Done”: Chrysler used the exact same concept to underscore its dogged determination to defy the doubters. Like Audi, Chrysler took an Edgar Guest poem (“See It Through”) and used it as the basis for a commercial that makes the same point—only the Pentastar did it two years earlier!
In the ad agency business, creative ideas are proprietary products. Yes, the great ones sometimes get imitated, but using the exact same concept in the exact same product category is questionable at best, especially given the topic. In short, “It Couldn’t Be Done” is a commercial about innovation that uses another car commercial’s idea. And given Audi’s history of consistently smart advertising, that puzzles me.
Award-winning ad man-cum-auto journalist Don Klein knows a good (or bad) car commercial when he sees one; the Ad Section is his space to tell you what he thinks of the latest spots. The ad’s rating is depicted via the shift pattern at the bottom, but everyone has an opinion when it comes to advertising, so hit Backfires below and tell us what you think, too.
By Don Klein