P.O.V. No.23

Storytelling and promotional properties
of the Audi ad, Tracks

Richard Raskin

Client: Audi of America
Agency: McKinney
Art Director: Bob Ranew
Copywriter: Liz Paradise
Creative Director: Pat Burnham
Producer: Joni Madison
Director: Zack Snyder
Production Company: Believe Media - Los Angeles, CA
Editing Company: Crew Cuts
Editor: Clayton Hemmert
Music Company: Elias Arts - NY
Composer: Matt Fletcher
Running time: 30 and 60 seconds
Production: 1997

Since the time I first saw this spot on Belgian TV in 1998, it has stood out for me as one of the most interesting commercials ever made. In the present article, I would like to look primarily at the ways in which it positions the product within the narrative, and to examine some of the qualities that may help to account for the richness and effectiveness of its storytelling.

At least three variants of the ad are currently accessible on the web, and what I propose to do at the start of this study is to reconstruct shot-by-shot the simplest - and in my view the best - of these versions, after which the differences found in the other two variants will be described with regard to their endings.

I am grateful to Janet Northen at McKinney-Silver for providing stills and the original presentation copy, for granting permission to reproduce these materials and for replying to a number of questions; to Patrick Hespen at Audi of America for further permission to reproduce the images; and to Esben Horn at Motionblur for permission to reproduce a still from German Coast Guard.

A shot-by-shot reconstruction of TRACKS

Version 1 - 30 seconds, 19 live-action shots
In this version, the live-action is devoted entirely to the grandfather and grandson. There are no shots of an Audi Quattro speeding through the snow. This version can currently be accessed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swxa00zDY9E and

Shot 1
Two tiny figures are barely discernible in a windswept, Artic landscape.

Shot 2
One of them is now seen to be an Inuit elder, looking out over the snow.

Shot 3
The two figures seen from above. They will soon be understood to be grandfather and grandson.

Shot 4
An animal's paw-print in the snow.

Shot 5
The grandson looks down at the animal track, then looks up expectantly.

Shot 6
Subtitle: Wolf.

Shot 7
They move on through the snow.

Shot 8
The grandfather points at something.

Shot 9
Larger animal tracks in the snow.

Shot 10
Subtitle: Bear.

Shot 11
Again they move on.

Shot 12

Shot 13
The grandfather kneels down to look at tire tracks in the snow.

Shot 14
He picks up some of the snow from the tire track.

Shot 15
He narrows his eyes, studying the snow.

Shot 16
He crunches the snow between his fingers.

Shot 17
Grandfather faces grandson.

Shot 18

Shot 18 (continued)
GRANDFATHER [After a beat]:…quattro

Shot 19
The grandson listens and solemnly nods. Dissolve.

End-title and logo.
All stills used with kind permission of McKinney-Silver and Audi of America.

Version 2 - 30 seconds, 26 live-action shots
Identical to Version 1 up to and including shot 15. But in place of shots 16 and 17, there are nine rapidly cut shots (some from the p.o.v. of an unseen driver) evoking an Audi Quattro "kicking up a huge tail of spray" as it speeds through the snow and finally passing between two signs on which "quattro" is written and then braking to a halt, with a chrome strip bearing the name "quattro" clearly visible. Then the grandfather says "Audi… Quattro" and the grandson nods. This version can currently be accessed at:

Shot 15

Shot 16

Shot 17

Shot 18

Shot 19

Shot 20

Shot 21

Shot 22

Shot 23

Shot 24

Shot 25

Shot 26

All stills used with kind permission of McKinney-Silver and Audi of America.

Version 3 (60 seconds) - 36 live-action shots
Here there are three sets of animal tracks instead of two: bear, caribou and wolf, as well as additional shots of the two characters throughout the spot. For example, the grandfather removes his gloves before reaching for some of the tire track snow. And after the grandfather says "Audi… Quattro," the grandson doesn't nod but rather turns his head toward our left, and we see seven rapidly cut shots of an Audi Quattro speeding through the snow. A voice-over accompanies the final shots. This version can currently be accessed at: http://www.believemedia.com/flash.html where the following options should be chosen: "directors," "Zack Snyder," and "Audi Tracks."

Shot 28
GRANDFATHER: Audi… Quattro.

Shot 29
The grandson listens, then turns his head toward our left, looking at something off-camera.

Shot 30

Shot 31

Shot 32

Shot 33

Shot 34

Shot 35

Shot 36
The all-wheel drive… …Audi Quattro… track one down at an Audi dealer near you.

All stills used with kind permission of McKinney-Silver and Audi of America.

Overview of the endings in the three versions of the spot
Version 1
(30 sec.)
  • grandfather studies snow from tire track
  • turns to grandson and says "Audi… quattro"
  • grandson solemnly nods
Version 2
(30 sec.)
  • grandfather studies snow from tire track
  • an Audi Quattro speeds through the snow
  • grandfather says "Audi… quattro"
  • grandson solemnly nods
Version 3
(60 sec.)
  • grandfather studies snow from tire track
  • turns to grandson and says "Audi… quattro"
  • grandson turns to look at something off-camera
  • an Audi Quattro speeds through the snow; voice-over

Presentation copy, reproduced here with the kind permission of McKinney-Silver.

Positioning the product in relation to the narrative
TV commercials that make the most of storytelling possibilities and offer a memorable degree of narrative pleasure to the viewer, might be divided into two relatively distinct groups.

There are those in which the live-action reaches its climax without any explicit allusion to the product to be promoted. In such cases, the narrative is intended to engage the viewer's interest as a means for enhancing his or her subsequent receptivity to the specifically promotional component that will follow in the form of a pack-shot, end-titles, voice-over, and/or logo. And in order to fulfill this purpose, the narrative typically dramatizes a situation that sets in sharp relief a need for or the assets of the product or service.

An excellent example of a spot of this kind is the immensely popular German Coast Guard ad for Berlitz (2006), [1] more than 300 specimens of which have been uploaded at YouTube. In this 40-second ad, a new recruit is seated at a Coast Guard radio transmitter, when an emergency call comes in: "Mayday, mayday. Hello, can you hear us? Can you hear us? Over. We are sinking. We are sinking." The inexperienced young man, visibly taken aback by the call, slowly speaks into the microphone, saying in a thick German accent: "Hello. This is the German Coast Guard." The now more desperate voice on the radio repeats: "We are sinking! We're sinking!" The recruit then asks: "What are you sinking about?" A sudden burst of Beethoven's Freude Schöner Götterfunken accompanies an end-title now urging: "Improve your English," followed by a title bearing the Berlitz logo and the words "Language for life." [2] Here the live-action portion of the spot, which could be enjoyed as a self-contained story in its own right, includes no mention of Berlitz and the explicitly promotional portion of the ad, confined to the end-titles and lying entirely outside the fiction, might be described as extra-diegetic. When this is the case, the narrative can be recounted by enthusiastic viewers of the ad without their ever mentioning the brand. This is not however a criticism of the spot but simply an observation regarding the positioning of the brand itself outside the fiction. And one argument in favor of this practice might be that withholding the transparently promotional component of the spot until after the live-action has reached completion, maximizes the likelihood that the viewer will not lose interest in the ad before it has delivered its payload.

Used with kind permission of Motionblur.

With ads of a second type, the brand is integrated into the live-action. If this is done unimaginatively, and especially if it is transparent from the start that a selling mode is in play, there is a significant risk that the viewer will withdraw his or her attention from the spot once it is recognized as merely a commercial.

But version 1 of the Audi ad is a special case in that the brand - which becomes an integral part of the narrative through the grandfather's final utterance - is evoked by name in a way that does not come across as a promotional pitch. In this respect, the brand is positioned within the story in an optimal manner, in that much of the narrative pleasure afforded to the viewer springs from the very utterance of the product's name, and it would be impossible to recount the narrative without mentioning the brand and model. The branding in play can therefore be described as intra-diegetic, but with an evocation of the product in a narratively pleasurable rather than promotional mode.

This important qualification is what distinguishes version 1 from the other two variants of the ad, both of which include product shots in their live action, as though the magic in the grandfather's utterance and of the grandson's solemn nod were not unbeatable in their ascription of a radiant status to the product in the viewer's eyes. The rapidly cut shots of the car speeding through the snow in versions 2 and 3 not only intrude upon and detract from the narrative focus of the fiction (the interaction of grandfather and grandson), but paradoxically may also weaken the promotional value of the spot by making the narrative itself too transparently promotional. Though I have no empirical data to support that claim, it is an important one to keep in mind because the point is not to allow narrative values to take precedence over the marketing effectiveness of an ad, [3] but rather to let the narrative do its job in the service of the product. Here, as in so many other contexts, less is more.

Another way in which the product is positioned within the narrative concerns its pretended assimilation into Inuit culture and into the world of nature.

That Inuit culture is portrayed respectfully in this ad is obvious, particularly when Tracks is compared to a recent spot in which an Inuit who is distractedly driving his dogsled alongside a Land Rover falls off the sled when it hits a snowdrift and then goes chasing after the runaway sled. [4] According to Brand Republic, seventy-one TV viewers filed complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority in the U.K. claiming that the ad was "racist and denigrated Inuit culture" and sixty further complained that "the ad showed behavior that was harmful to the environment." [5] Although these complaints were all rejected by the Advertising Standards Authority, it is clear that this ad makes a representative of Inuit culture the butt of a joke and implicitly suggests that the Inuit dogsled is ridiculously inferior to the modern automotive technology embodied by the Land Rover.

Although one commentator found Tracks offensive, [6] the grandfather and grandson are depicted in this spot in an unmistakably positive light and with all the quiet dignity one could wish for in an enactment of this kind. And just as that culture is portrayed in a flattering perspective, the pretended assimilation of the product into that culture's lore becomes a glowing asset within the framework of the narrative - also in that the grandfather, who speaks an Inuit language when identifying the various animal tracks in the snow, flawlessly pronounces "Audi… Quattro" when examining the tire tracks.

Furthermore, positioning the product as belonging in some way to a series including the wolf and bear suggests that the car is like a wild animal, which in turn is an asset both in that it is given the aura of something powerful and untamed (and therefore desirable to possess) and also in its playfully defining the car as a part of nature rather than an offending intruder into the natural environment. This of course is truer of Version 1 than of the other two variants in which the noisy and snow-spewing car does in fact come across as more of an intruder into the otherwise peaceful landscape.

2. Polarity and seriality as structuring principles
The shorter the narrative, the more useful it can be to give it structure by means of polar opposites that can be established almost instantaneously.

In Tracks, the grandfather and grandson form a cluster of binary oppositions such as age vs. youth, big vs. little, knowing vs. not knowing, initiating vs. responding.

There are also polarities in play with respect to distance and proximity, in that the two figures are at times little more than dots in the landscape but fill the entire screen at other moments. This alternation can also be seen as a moving back and forth between vastness and intimacy, or wilderness and family bonds.

Yet another kind of polarity was pointed out by Liz Paradise, the copywriter of the ad, when she wrote:

There's also a great juxtaposition between the weightiness /gravitas of the landscape with wise elder, and the apparent humor in the end. [7]

The solemnity with which the grandfather makes his final utterance and the grandson takes it in, are integral parts of an elaborate joke they are enacting for our benefit - the actors having to keep a straight face while undoubtedly aware that this final plot-point will amuse and delight the viewer.

Seriality is also a familiar feature of fairly tales, fables and jokes, in which - for example - there may be porridge that is either too hot, too cold, or just right; or houses made of straw, sticks and bricks; or three deeds to be accomplished in order to win the hand of a princess; or visits of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come; or a priest, minister and rabbi, who in turn deliver their lines about a situation at hand.

Seriality as a structuring principle is very much in play in the Audi ad in which the first two (or three) sets of tracks establish a pattern: in each case and for the benefit of the grandson, the grandfather effortlessly names the animal that left its paw-prints in the snow. The framework for these on-going interactions has been aptly described by Janet Northen as a mentoring relationship.5 And as is the case with seriality in any storytelling situation, the initial items in the series establish a narratively pleasurable pattern that the final item completes, often with some unexpected deviation that both heightens enjoyment and caps the series, implicitly marking closure. As part of the set-up in the Audi ad, a traffic sign (in shot 12) opens the way for the final set of tracks though without revealing too much, and the grandfather's need to feel and intently study those tracks before announcing their origin, further sets this final bit of mentoring apart from the earlier ones. With the scene now fully set, the live-action in Version 1 of the ad reaches completion in three successive beats: 1) the grandfather's utterance of the brand name "Audi"; 2) his further specifying "Quattro" (like a wine taster who having identified the grape then nails down the château and vintage); 3) the grandson's responsive nod.

And as already pointed out above, in likening the brand and model to a wild animal and in playfully integrating it into the world of Inuit lore by means of its positioning in this series, the ad invests the product with qualities enhancing its desirability in the eyes of the viewer.

In Versions 2 and 3, the product shots play against the seriality unnecessarily and detract from the coherence and closure of an otherwise beautifully orchestrated narrative.

The Audi Tracks ad:

  • not only positions the product within the narrative but also brilliantly makes the very utterance of the brand name and model the dramatic climax of the story;
  • assimilates the product into a positively portrayed Inuit culture and into the world of nature;
  • uses polarities (such as age vs. youth, distance vs. proximity, gravitas vs. humor) and seriality (wolf, bear, Audi Quattro) as structuring principles, shaping and deepening the viewer's involvement in the narrative, and helping to ascribe positive characteristics to the product.

I have further argued that Variant 1 (containing no shots of the car speeding through the snow) is the best of the three versions of the ad in that the grandfather's final utterance is an ultimate and unbeatable moment investing the product with a glowing status in the viewer's eyes, while the shots of the car

  • detract from the coherence of the narrative;
  • weaken the case for seeing the car as a part of rather than an intruder into the natural environment;
  • dilute the promotional impact of the spot by too transparently selling the product instead of letting the story work its magic in a more subtle and effective manner.

1 Agency: BTS United Oslo. Copywriter: Pål Sparre Enger. AD: Thorbjørn Naug. Production Company: Motion Blur. Directors: Nic Osborn and Sune Maroni. Producer: Espen Horn. Post-production: Chimney/Bates Red Cell Oslo.

2 A second and in my view far less amusing variant of the spot can currently be accessed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0JxZ2zIluU Here it is the supervisor, showing off to the new recruit, who misunderstands the mayday message.

3 According to Sergio Zyman, this is what happens all too often, when advertising agencies become more interested in winning prizes for their ads than in helping to sell their clients' products. Though I believe he overstates his case and paints an unfair picture of advertising agencies, his provocative book is nevertheless well worth reading: The End of Advertising as We Know It (London: John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

4 This ad can currently be accessed at

5 Daniel Farey-Jones, "Land Rover steers into minefield of racism complaints," 8 March 2006.

6 Jane George, "German car ad mangles Inuit culture." Nunatsiac News, 15 February 2002. http://www.nunatsiaq.com/archives/nunavut020215/news/nunavut/20215_6.html The author of that article objected to the pronunciation of the animal names in the spot, with the vowels incorrectly elongated ("nan-o-o-o-o-k," "amar-o-o-o-k"), and to the characters' wearing of snow shoes. A letter from John MacDonald replying to some of those objections appeared in a subsequent issue of Nunatsiac News and can be accessed at http://www.nunatsiaq.com/archives/nunavut020301/news/editorial/letters.html

7 Transmitted in an email from Janet Northen at McKinney on February 7, 2007.

Web-based commentaries on the Audi Quattro spot:

George, Jane. German car ad mangles Inuit culture. Nunatsiac News, 15 Feb. 2002. http://www.nunatsiaq.com/archives/nunavut020215/news/nunavut/20215_6.html

MacDonald, John. "Inuit in wooded regions wore snowshoes." Nunatsiac News. Letter dated 1 March 2002. http://www.nunatsiaq.com/archives/nunavut020301/news/editorial/letters.html

Weigand, Andrea-Verena. "Vergleich der Erfolgsfaktoren von emotionalen Werbebotschaften in Deutschland und Italien." HOCHSCHULE MITTWEIDA (FH) , UNIVERSITY OF APPLIED SCIENCES Fachbereich Medien, 2006. http://www.buena-la-vista.de/pdf/diplomarbeit_weigand.pdf

"Audi quattro - Spuren im Schnee. Erfahrungsberichte. Die Sorge um den kleinen Eskimo." http://www.ciao.de/Audi_quattro_Spuren_im_Schnee__Test_1491538

"The quattro's emotive appeal." 1 May 2005. AudiWorld.

"Networked creativity. AudiAgencyNetwork." 12 November 2002. AudiWorld.

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