Audi ‘Truth in Engineering’ ads come back to bite amid probe

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“IT’S NOT THAT easy being green.”

That was Kermit the Frog’s lament to comedian Joel McHale in an advertisement during Sunday night’s Primetime Emmy Awards, touting Audi’s latest innovations in low emissions technology. The punchline couldn’t have come at a less opportune moment for the German luxury carmaker and its parent Volkswagen AG.

Just hours earlier, VW Chief Executive Officer Martin Winterkorn apologized for breaking the trust of customers following revelations his company cheated on emissions data for nearly half a million of its diesel cars. The Audi campaign’s discordance was compounded by the marque’s US slogan, “Truth in Engineering,” which also featured prominently in advertisements shown Sunday during US football games. The VW brand’s North American slogan is: “Isn’t it time for German engineering?”

“Volkswagen is an extreme example of a brand believing itself to be bulletproof,” Jo Arden, head of strategy at advertising agency 23red in London, wrote in an e-mail. “In today’s climate, consumers will run a mile from brands that say one thing and do another.”

Mr. McHale ended Sunday’s advertisement by climbing into an A3 plug-in hybrid — the diesel version of the A3 compact was among the models that the US Environmental Protection Agency said used software that turned on full emission controls only during tests.

Audi, which is the biggest profit contributor of VW’s 12 brands spanning motorbikes to trucks, introduced the “Truth in Engineering” tagline back in 2007, a year after hiring San Francisco-based Venables, Bell & Partners to handle its US advertising. Publication Advertising Age said the account was worth $70 million, without specifying a timeframe.

The automaker is stopping sales of the diesel versions of Audi’s A3 as well as of VW’s Jetta, Golf, Beetle, and Passat, spokesman Peter Thul said by telephone Monday. He declined to say whether VW would suspend Audi’s “Truth in Engineering” ad campaigns.

A revamped version of the Passat sedan is scheduled to debut in Brooklyn on Monday evening. Singer Lenny Kravitz, whose last album included the tune “I Never Want to Let You Down.” is set to appear.

“This is a classic case of the law of having to avoid overselling and overpromising,” Mark Borkowski, a London-based communications consultant, said by telephone. “It shows an organization which is disjointed from its marketing brand message and PR.” — Bloomberg