The Audi commercial that's been airing nearly everywhere lately, caught my attention with its portrayal of a sort of class warfare. Check it out:
The "gluttonous", "stuffy", and generally "outdated" people and products (such as the Mercedes at the end) portrayed here, call up the idea of conservative "old money" -- i.e., the entrenched rich, many of whom have inherited their wealth.
Such folks, with the exception of royalty of course, don't seem to get represented much in our media images lately. Perhaps they seem too inaccessible to provoke interest. That's why the section in the spot where they, their mansions, poodles and chandeliers still live, seems almost like a dream sequence -- scored to a rewrite of the classic children's book Goodnight Moon.
Of course, the spot isn't addressed to such phantoms (or those who aspire to be them). It speaks instead to those in the market for a luxury car (this Audi starts around $78,000), who identify with the futuristic appeal of Audi design -- people who demand "inspiration", "illumination", and most of all, today's hottest commodity, "innovation".
Audi's brand image is constructed through such attributes. It's said to signify "innovative design and technology", and a "progressive" outlook. As Dan Pankraz, a student of luxury brands sums this up: "Audi is modern."
And the section of the elite class who might be identified by such characteristics does make the news enough to become objects of emulation.
The Working Rich
In an essay from the Atlantic titled "The Rise of the New Global Elite", Chrystia Freeland describes this new elite:
"...the rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has lead to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition -- and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn't succeed so spectacularly."
These folks do, in fact, owe much of their wealth to innovations -- whether they be technological, financial, or "the liberalization of global trade." Their social life is said to be different as well:
"The debutante balls and hunts and regattas of yesteryear may not be quite obsolete, but they are headed in that direction. The real community life of the 21st century plutocracy occurs on the international conference circuit."
My guess is that the demos of the audience that Audi is after are younger than the Mercedes crowd -- the type of folks who would aspire to the values of the new, rather than the old class of elites.
Accordingly, the spot seems to say, "Don't emulate the snobby old school; not when Audi can drive you to your future."
Where Have We Seen This Before? Ask Ezra Pound...
I wondered why this spot, despite its praise of all things new, nevertheless felt a little old-fashioned to me. Then I remembered that playing off the "decadent bourgeois" against the values of modernity is as old as modernism itself. Ezra Pound's poem, "Les Millwin" (1913), for example, portrays the upper crust "Millwin" clan at the ballet:
The little Millwins attend the Russian Ballet.
The mauve and greenish souls of the little Millwins
Were seen lying along the upper seats
Like so many unused boas.
A few lines later, these indolent folks meet with the vitality of young "Futurists":
With arms exalted, with fore-arms
Crossed in great futuristic X's, the art students
Exulted, they beheld the splendours of Cleopatra.
Pound scholar Christine Froula commented that these lines refer to Italian Futurism, whose "aesthetic exalted speed, motion, the abstract qualities of life in the machine age." (p. 50) Faced with such an aesthetic, the Millwins are caught, deer-in-the-headlights fashion, and can only look on passively, "With their large and anaemic eyes."
It's worth remembering, though, that despite their "revolutionary vitality" the Italian Futurists, and indeed, Pound himself, ended up endorsing the very old-fashioned values they seemed to criticize: they backed Mussolini -- and his bureaucratic neo-traditionalism (dressed up, of course, in modernist garb).
Cultural critics, such as Jodi Dean, wonder, in fact, if our current crop of techno-futurists will up strengthening -- by renovating and upgrading -- the very order they initially criticized in their cyber-communalist, "information wants to be free" days. (p. 27)
The jury's still out on such a question. What is fair to say, though, is that using the language of "technical innovation" helps Audi put a more contemporary spin on what's fast becoming, with the age of the electric car looming, a pretty old-fashioned product.
For, even with "13% better fuel efficiency" than its predecessor, it's increasingly difficult to see any gasoline powered car as particularly modern.