The Essential Truth in Audi’s Super Bowl Ad


audi super bowl ad 2013
As is increasingly common, Audi has posted its 2013 Super Bowl “Prom” commercial for public viewing before it airs during the big game. The plot is simple enough, as you’ll see:

Television commercials should never be confused with documentaries, but in this case Audi’s ad does illustrate a basic truth: the brands and products we use affect how we feel about ourselves. Though greatly exaggerated, the transformation of the meek and insecure high school student into a much more confident self after driving the Audi S6 isn’t without basis in fact.

Brands can change self-perception

Victoria's SecretIn a fascinating paper, University of Minnesota researchers Ji Kyung Park and Deborah Roedder John demonstrated that brand personalities did indeed rub off on many people. Women who walked around a shopping mall carrying a Victoria’s Secret bag felt better looking, more feminine, and more glamorous after doing so vs. women who carried plain pink shopping bags. Similarly, MBA students perceived themselves as being more intelligent, more of a leader, and harder working after using an MIT pen vs. an unbranded pen.

Now, there’s one caution – the effect didn’t work on everyone. “Incremental theorists,” people who think their personal qualities can be changed and improve themselves through their own efforts, weren’t affected by using the branded product. “Entity theorists,” on the other hand, believe their personal qualities are largely fixed; this group was affected most by the brand they used.

So, if you assume that the kid in the Audi commercial starts off with a largely fatalistic view of his personal characteristics, he’d be an entity theorist. And, he’d be precisely the personality type to get a confidence boost if he perceived the Audi S6 to be a macho vehicle – truth (sort of) in advertising!

What’s Your Brand Personality?

There’s a message for all marketers in this. Your brand will actually change the way some of your customers feel about themselves. Even those customers that aren’t susceptible to changes in self-perception may still buy it because they identify with the brand personality. Or, they may want to use your brand to send a signal to others. Regardless, if you can shape your brand’s (or product’s) personality to be what your potential customers aspire to be, you’ll have a winner!

That aside, what do you think of this Audi commercial? Is Prom Super Bowl worthy? Do you have a different favorite among the early releases this year? Leave a comment!

  1. Neil Hopkins says

    Hmm. Racing away from the lights? Flooring it down deserted highways?

    OK, so I work in the road safety field at the moment and am maybe more sensitive to these things than the average punter (there’s only so many dead body pictures you can see).

    But all that this ad says to me is “recklessness”.

    On a more advertising related note, it’s not really new. And it’s a bit on the predictable side. I agree with you – it’s speaking to the person who wants to project a particular image of themselves and needs a brand to help that happen.

    But I do wonder about the target demographic for the ad. Is it that 18 year old (and, if so, can I have his annual earnings since I can’t afford a new Audi)? Or is it the people of his parents’ age trying to remember their youth?


  2. Roger Dooley says

    Good points, Neil. I agree that using a hormonal teenager to sell cars to upscale adults is risky. On the other hand, for the upscale, middle-aged male (who is likely the target buyer), the idea of an automotive testosterone injection may be just the ticket!


  3. Adam Strasberg says

    I think you bring up a great point about brands and the ads that tell their stories. The brand’s story becomes a part of your story. It’s something Rob Walker talks about in his book, “Buying In.”

    I also thought the link to mindset (fixed v. growth as Carol Dweck puts it in her book “Mindset” or Incrimental theorists v. Entity theorists as you put it) was an interesting twist on the study.

    As to the ad itself… In a vacuum I liked the ad. It told a story, it had a kid we could root for (the underdog, brave enough to go to the prom on his own) who reaches for his prize, is hurt in the effort, but emerges stronger for the adventure.

    I think your point about adopting the brand identity is an important one, but that’s where this ad falls short. In the study Victoria Secret has an identity that authentic to it’s brand (sexuality, femininity and the like). What’s Audi’s brand? I’m not sure, other than the alternative to BMW & Mercedes? The ad positions Audi as a car that gives you confidence, a rebel maybe, courageous certainly. But, I’m not sure that’s what folks think of the brand, so those qualities while imbued in the ad don’t carry the same resonance.

    The ad is a A- for execution, but a C+ for function.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Adam, I agree that Audi isn’t the first brand I’d think of for macho sex appeal. Maybe that’s what they are trying to accomplish here, move the brand more toward a BMW performance machine image.


      1. Adam Strasberg says

        It’s always the interesting thing about super bowl ads, which tend towards gimmick over substance. If this is the first of a series of ads that tells a new story about Audi, then I would rate it higher in hindsight.

        What is the Audi story? I’m not even sure myself, maybe that’s an opportunity for the company, but they need to present the brand in more than one ad and one medium to really make the case stick.

  4. Allison Cohen says

    i like the Audi commercial a lot. I think it starts to humanize a brand that I primarily associate with technology, speed, quality craftsmanship but in a cold way. And Audi seems to be the brand of choice in my neighborhood of 60 families. I can see the dads tossing the keys to their sons for prom in a few years. As a long-time ad exec and market researcher, brand personality definitely matters otherwise we wouldn’t see difference among essentially parity brands and we see more interest in generic products.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That’s kind of funny in a way, Allison… Audi seems to be lacking a “brand story” compared to their major competitors, but clearly the people in your neighborhood find something attractive about them. Social proof? An awesome dealer?


  5. Roger Dooley says

    I guess we’ll have to wait to find out if this is part of a longer term brand definition process, Adam, or just a one-off cute commercial.


  6. Ron Wright says

    Roger –

    Seeing quite a few emotional story line spots in this year’s Super Bowl spots. Take a look at the new Budweiser “Baby Clydsdale” just released by Anomaly:–yanks-heartstrings-180226935.html

    This should be a very interesting year on who climbs into the top 5 spots of our “neuro” ranking. Volkswagen / Deutsch LA will have a challenge.

    Ron Wright
    CEO / Sands Research

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That’s a good one, Ron. Budweiser always seems to go for the emotional approach on its Clydesdale ads. I guess that beats, “Budweiser… the classic American beer that tastes a lot like other weak American brews! Buy it!”


  7. Neil Hopkins says

    As we’re talking about the longer term story development, have you seen the A5 ad? It may have only run in the UK…

    I’m still not convinced about this work. Looking at it again, it’s not a new story at all. And I’m not convinced about the idea that a middle aged male would use an Audi to get that hormonal buzz back. To me, as a petrol head, that’s not what Audi stands for – and if they’re going for a redefinition of that brand, then they need to tread really, really carefully.

    Audi’s core DNA is precision engineering. And yes, that’s a bit cold. But they need to understand how to translate that across.

    For me, this ad still doesn’t do it – to the point of being a waste of money in my opinion…

  8. Roger Dooley says

    I wonder if the car-buying public recognizes “precision engineering” as Audi’s brand identity, Neil? If you gave me that phrase, I’d guess Mercedes Benz. I think it fits Audi, mainly because of its upscale, German heritage, but isn’t totally associated with the brand. “Early adopters of all-wheel-drive” and “winter performance” come to my mind, but I may not be typical.

    1. Neil Hopkins says

      Interesting observation, Roger. I would have said so, based on their engineering related advertising here in the UK… But maybe that’s a territory distinction?

  9. Alyssa Royse says

    As one who comes from marketing an PR, I am stunned that this ad made it all the way to production without someone saying, “um, guys, are we selling sexual violence with this one?” There is no, and I mean NO circumstance in which it is okay for someone to walk up behind a woman who he does not have a pre-existing sexual relationship with and kiss her without her consent. And it is clear from the responses around him that he doesn’t. The shock, the anger, the violence?

    While I applaud what I THINK MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE UNDERLYING MESSAGE, that we need to “go for it” and “get” the things we want in life, we need to make clear that that’s not true if what we want is another human being. We don’t get to just grab and take people for our gratification, no matter how hot they make us feel.

    Not even if we have “the right car.” And that’s the even scarier subtext to me. That somehow, if we have the right car (or are the captain of the football team or are …..) we are entitled to just take the women we want. This feeds into an already skewed idea of masculinity that is harmful to both men and women. This ad is the perfect summary of Rape Culture that is so pervasive – especially amongst youth.

    I love advertising. Done right, they are perfect little stories that inspire us. But we have to look at the underlying stories we are selling. It’s no secret that sex sells, and that brands like Audi use sexuality to sell products. And while I have issues with that, I also totally accept it. (Hell, I’m a sex-educator, I sell sex too, because I think it is vital and important!) But to sell non-consensual sex this explicitly is just dangerous. What would you ay to your daughter if some guy grabbed her from behind and kissed her? What if she came home crying because she felt frightened and violated? Would you ask her what kind of car he drove before deciding whether or not her fear and anger was justified?

    Seriously? Did Audi run this ad by anyone before producing it? It terrifies me.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Interesting, Alyssa . My first take was different. But, I see what you mean. I guess I unconsciously filled in some backstory that included an existing relationship of some kind.


      1. Citizen Jayne says

        Roger, there is no “back story,” there is a rape culture that we live in where women are presented to young men as prizes that will eventually win. This is a very typical narrative where “success” is demonstrated by “getting” and expensive car and a pretty girl. ts pretty irresponsible of audi.

        1. Roger Dooley says

          Viewed in the context framed by you and Alyssa, Jayne, I can see the point. I’m sure it wasn’t Audi’s intention to imply that the kid’s advances were unwanted, but they might have tweaked the story a bit to make that clear. Thanks for bringing out this side of things.


      2. JT says


        I may be 2 years late to this post, but after seeing the some of the comments I had to speak my peace. While there are a few shrill SJW types like the poster above who tend to see any expression of masculine desire (that isn’t emanating from Ryan Gosling) as the worst thing since Jack the Ripper, there are a lot more of us who find absolutely nothing wrong with Audi’s commercial. In fact, many folks are increasingly impressed by a message like this, as the time-worn truths in vignettes like the Audi “Prom” spot are increasingly repressed by a small, yet powerful and vocal minority who demand strict adherence to politically correct orthodoxy.

        There are two points I would like to leave you with:
        First, the SJW’s who hate hate hate this commercial were never going to buy an S6 in the first place (they likely are putting their money into a Prius, Subaru or no car whatsoever), and many of the folks who like it actually are potential Audi buyers.

        Second, as a marketer you should be aware of a rising counter-cultural movement that holds both tradition and masculinity in very high regard. If you haven’t investigated the “manosphere” yet, now is the time. Each day, I am seeing more ideas/concepts from this movement seeping into both the news and everyday life. As the trend continues, it may mean that companies like Audi are making a smart decision running content like this.

        1. Roger Dooley says

          Thanks for the insights, JT. Any ad has to be designed for the target audience, not the general population or so-called experts and critics.

    2. Neil Hopkins says

      Hey Alyssa

      You’ve changed the frame of reference for me on that ad now… I agree with you…


    3. Mary Cahalane (@mcahalane) says

      Thank you, Alyssa. The ad shocked me. The sexual violence and objectification of women was horrible. And to me, it started with the sort of leering wink from the boy’s dad. “Here’s the fancy car, go get some.”

      The girl at the dance became just another object. She had no value besides her looks. She had no say in how she was used. Just another nice looking prop – like the car.

      Bleh. I expected that from the better-unnamed web hosting company. Audi could have done much better.

      1. Roger Dooley says

        Thanks for stopping by, Mary. Any thoughts about the Axe ad?


  10. Adam Strasberg says

    If anyone is interested Fast Company is holding a chat with the Audi GM of Brand marketing at noon today (now actually as I type).

  11. Frances Farmer says

    Very insightful. I’ve always noticed how commercials make me feel, but didn’t notice the science behind it.

  12. Chris says

    This is a great ad to start a series about the idea of bravery. Hopefully this is part of a larger campaign for Audi.

    The ad is reminds Audi’s target audience how great it felt to take a risk, to face your fears and go for what you want. The payoff is in the look of the prom queen, the primal scream and the black eye too (you have to take some licks).

    Audi challenges/invites 40-somethings to reconnect with that brave, foolish part of them.

    I’m hoping for more videos. Maybe a series of brave moments throughout life (the epic road trip, the first real love affair, the big pitch, the first necessary breakup, the proposal).

  13. Liza says

    I don’t see references for these studies listed anywhere…Can you provide them please?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Which studies, Liza?


  14. mike hensgen says

    Loved your piece and the stimulating comments it generated (altho the traffic safety slant by one seemed a bit overwrought). Nothing much more to add, but would be interesting to know the demographics of “Incremental Theorists” versus “Entity Theorists.” Assume it could shift by age and income.

  15. Nahida Meah says

    There’s also a safety net to purchasing products and services from established brands. Such as in the UK, many households would purchase Fairy liquid rather than supermarket branded washing up liquid.

  16. Neil Davidson says

    It seems that I am at odds with most people here – I enjoyed the ad and think that they did a good job of getting the message right for their target market.

    I think that many middle aged men fantasise about being younger and like to associate with a braver and more adventurous life.

    I did not pick up on the points that Alyssa raised but this may be down to my gender so it was good to watch again after reading these views.

    My initial perception of the underlying story was the same as Roger’s – that there was an existing relationship between the two.

    Most men do not believe that they can just walk up to a woman and start kissing her and I do not think that Audi were trying to imply that here, but I could be wrong.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      There are clearly a range of viewpoints on this ad, Neil. I wonder if instead of kissing the girl he had decked the prom king we’d have people saying the ad encourages violent behavior. Might have been a safer approach!


  17. Terry O'Gara says

    The last ten years have yielded only three memorable car spots and this is one of them.

    Is it also sexist? Yes, and brilliantly so, because it dispenses with millennial concepts of equality and taps directly into the psyche of the 45 yr old Gen X potential customer whose psyche was shaped by James Bond circa Dr. No, and Iron Maiden.

    As a 40 something male myself, I feel a bit of Clockwork Orange when I watch it, as though the marketers have peeled back my eyelids and started pushing every button in my brain. It’s like ‘Last American Virgin’ meets ‘Fight Club’. Morally wrong but wildly entertaining –and demographically on target.

    Not to mention that it’s also great to see this brand dispense with the usual set of Luxury semiotics and simply provoke a gut feeling. Like, isn’t that what advertising used to do?

  18. Neil Hopkins says

    Hi Terry
    Out of interest, what are the other two?
    By your own admission, you’re more demographically on target than I am, so I think that our differing reactions to the work are fascinating!

  19. Terry O'Gara says

    The three most memorable US car spots from the last ten years:

    2013’s Audi ‘Prom’

    2011’s Chrysler ‘Imported from Detroit’

    2010’s Nissan Leaf ‘Polar Bear’

    The list is subjective, of course, and others will want to include VW’s ‘The Force’ or Chrysler ‘Night Swimming’ or some other favorite. Go ahead: my measure for the point of this exercise is simply how effectively a given marketer has told a short form story that results in a super sized emotional response. This discussion is interesting enough without digressing into a debate on naughts era automotive work.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Terry, it seems like “Prom” didn’t blow away other SuperBowl ads in terms of popularity/likability (unlike, say, “The Force”). Do you think it’s because they targeted a specific demographic vs. creating an ad that would appeal to everyone?


  20. Terry O'Gara says

    My opinion remains the same: ‘Prom’ displays expertly crafted storytelling and marketing, independent of the popularity of any other similar work. It shifts Audi to a new position and it might make potential buyers think differently about the brand. Other spots provide great entertainment but might not always be so effective at fulfilling an underlying communications objective. I think ‘Prom’ gets the balance right.

  21. Laura Hedlund says

    I’ll start with a confession. I am so out of the super-bowl world that I thought New Orleans was playing. I recently read Unconscious Branding. My intuitive-based interpretations does not inspire my authentic self to race out and buy a car after seeing this ad. I am not interested in the principal’s parking spot.

    It is not our thing-side which makes us alive. If a car impacts my ability to kiss, my kiss is diminished, for it is not me you are kissing, it is your interpretation of me. I imagine this is a lonely, isolated place.

    I think MacDonald’s in is most recent “hail to the chief” ad pretends to be God. Their chickens and eggs, pork and beef come from mega farms. What would we think of 15 million cats or dogs kept in small spaces?

  22. James Lewis says

    I am 33 years old. Because of the quite intense (yet polite) debate I thought I would reflect the thoughts/emotions and anchors the advert brought up for me.

    The first caption with the Mum lovingly giving her son emotional support and the sister doing her homework in the background created a feeling of someone that has come from a loving/stable family background. He is obviously nervous and anxious and I got the feeling of sensitivity from his body language and facial actions. He mum tries to re-assure him, while his little sister is quite harsh with him. This shows that even his little sister is harsh with him. This is the classical ‘nice guy’ who always loses out because he is not brave enough to put himself at risk and speak out.

    The father to me is showing his support by giving the keys of the car to him. Supplementing weakness in his personality with the car. Nothing new there. The feeling I got when I saw the Dad give him the keys was one of an innate understanding his anxiousness through personal experience. The son is obviously carrying traits of his father. The father did not come across as being predatory or over masculine. He has very soft, stable and nourishing voice. He does not wink, but nods slightly as if to say ‘go for it’.

    It is obvious both parents know how there son is feeling and that there is a girl he likes, that he wants to impress, that he wants to kiss. The mum makes reference to him looking dashing. Also there have been a million films, stories of the thin, nice, unconfident male losing the most beautiful girl in school to the strong, tall, popular, sports team captain. The girl is always portrayed as beautiful and empathic. She always notices the nice guy and is kind to him and shares common empathic personality traits. But goes for the masculine popular guy because of evolutionary, social and popular drive. Because the advert is emanating this set in stone story, its clear he is not stepping over boundaries forcing himself on her. He has gone to school with this girl and is in the same year as her. They know each other and have a level of rapport that warrants him attempting to kiss her. He is not being predatory and force full. Also the prom night is synomonus with a ‘prom kiss’ So it is a safe, consentual environment to attempt to kiss someone. It’s what happens. This is the social reality.

    He drives the car slowly in a safe way and his energy level does not change until he meets the wild girls in the car The advert uses wild women to activate/empower him, this is another attempt to balance the male-female equality in the advert. At this point we have seen 4 women and only him and his dad.

    The music starts ‘back up to the wall’ This implies someone who needs to levitate themselves to the next level in order to survive. So even at this point, the advert is about correcting a insecure imbalance in him. Not about turning him into a predatory male.

    He is the one that initiates the kiss, it is unexpected and a little forceful. But she very quickly pushes back into the kiss and takes control of the kiss. The initiation is a little strong. But I don’t feel it promotes ‘take what you want in a predatory way’ The shock is because the prom queen is kissing the underdog, not her boyfriend prom king who is wearing white while everyone is wearing black. She carries on holding him after the kiss showing not only consent but also that she does not want to let go of him. He was brave and his prediction that she would accept the kiss paid off. He wasn’t kissing someone who didn’t know or like him. This is defining point.

    He got hit by the prom king to show he got hurt but felt the fear and did it anyway. This brings an aspect of belief to the story, as usually the nice guy always loses. I don’t like this part. especially the bruise on his face and you can see his teeth which is quite aggressive. And I don’t like him shouting. This is the testosterone shot others have talked about, it creates excitement which presumably is the trigger and anchor to remember and maybe eventually buy. I think they are pushing barriers in this part, but we have to respect thats their job. And they have done it well.
    Also they have built up 45 seconds of balance in the advert.

    Personally I would have liked him to leave with the girl not a bruise on his face and glide home with her slowly and romantically in the car living in the moment. Or have him win the girl before kissing her.

    I think a lot of time and effort went into this to make it attractive to the target audience without causing too much offense to a large % of other people including women. You can not keep everyone happy, our experiences/personality and belief systems all make us see different and feel different things when exposed to the same stimuli. But compared to computer games that children play, this advert is meek. So while I agree that everything people are exposed to visually needs to be censored and controlled, this advert is positive and reinforces positive emotion of bravery. After all if the nice guy won out more, there would be less sociopaths running the world.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Very thoughtful analysis, James, thanks!


  23. Ira says

    I was struck by your original blog post.

    You point out that people who think they can’t change (“entity theorists”) are in fact much more malleable– their mood shifts when they pick up a different pen.

    The missing fact is that people who believe they can change actually can– and they don’t need brands to do it.

    So the ads take advantage of this false belief to encourage people to spend money to buy products that make them feel confident, when in fact they could get confidence in other ways.

    This isn’t “truth (sort of) in advertsing,” it’s manipulation (definitely.)

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