Can the privileged class start enjoying its privileges again already? Here’s the first in a three-part series on the Super Bowl’s auto commercials (including perhaps THE only two popular ads this year). They tell a divided story.
Audi: Release the Hounds (Or, Meet the New Boss: Same as the Old Boss)
Two bathrobed prisoners in a jail for the wealthy break out, to a soundtrack of their delighted fellow inmates’ cheers, and Kenny G. The warden orders “Release the hounds,” and as the prisoners reach the gate, they have a choice: climb into a white Mercedes, or a flashy Audi A8. The older of the pair hops into the Benz–“My father had one of these,” he says, and is driven immediately back to the jail. The younger accelerates to freedom in the Audi, passing under the George Washington Bridge as a voice-over implores us: “Escape the confines of old luxury.” The tagline reads: “Luxury has progressed.”
So the ad aims to convince us that old luxury is dead, and that it’s acceptable, sexy, desirable, etc. to indulge in new luxuries. This is not a very new idea (just watch the above Philadelphia Story and notice how similar Carey Grant looks to the protagonist of the Audi commercial, and how different Grant’s car looks from everyone else’s). That is, if there is a victim of the last four years of endemic unemployment and economic collapse, it’s certainly not conspicuous consumption itself (that was the rumor circa January 2009)–but rather simply the consumption of old guard luxury brands.
Of course, there’s nothing fundamentally different about the latest iteration of luxury at all. To begin with, the prisoners are all in the same jail. Old and new wealth are locked up in the same physical space at the beginning of the ad. Why, precisely, are they there? We are told that these poor souls are “confined” by old luxury. But what does this actually mean? What are the trappings of contemporary wealth? One can’t help but conclude that they are serving time for white-collar crimes. If this is so, then at the end, we’re rooting for the young Wall Street investor who has come up with a new algorithm/program/options-scheme that goes undetected by regulators. He gets away because he has figured out a way to beat the system.
Audi gets us to root for the return of the same exact financial structures in a new packaging. We cheer for the a new young buck who evades the law and flies down the Hudson. “Where is he headed?” we may wonder. Well, if you look closely, he’s driving southbound below the West Side Highway during the early morning hours, ostensibly driving to work at Goldman from suburban Westchester.
That the commercial advocates the revitalization of accepted modes of exploitation goes as well for how it is subtly racialized. All of the prisoners, drivers, and guards are white, except for one. The only non-white character is dressed as a doorman who releases the hounds on the fleeing prisoners. (This is the commercial’s real rage-inducing moment for me. REALLY AUDI? A DOORMAN?) A black man releasing hounds on a pair of fleeing white millionaires is a narrative inversion of the most sinister kind. That is, I think it’s still rather soon to be joking about slavery jokes in commercials…and it always will be. But at the same time, this inversion points us to another way in which the order of this commercial simply plays reproduces and repackages existing structures of power. The commercial’s only racially “marked” character takes orders from the warden. He works for the jail. He is a night-watchman, a security guard — in other words, a low income laborer who probably takes this job knowing that he will never afford either a Benz or an Audi.
Luxury never progresses in our society–it merely morphs, making new products seem more desirable to newly privileged classes making its privileges seem prettier than the privileged who came before them.
Verdict: NOT buying an A8. (I’m more of a white Benz man myself, anyway. There’s something dignified in being honest about being a prick, no?)