Audi's Bizarre A3 Launch

May 30, 2005
Audi of America is in the midst of a most unusual marketing campaign for the launch of its A3 model that bends the standards of so-called viral marketing and carries the hope of company executives that the car will generate so much demand that sales incentives won't be needed.

Here is how the Audi A3 campaign, themed "The Art of the Heist" began. On March 31, an actor hired by Audi to play the role of Ian Yarbrough, a computer hacker and partner in a company that recovers lost and stolen art, sees that a notorious art thief stole an A3 from a Manhattan Audi showroom. Yarbrough was seeking computer files hidden in the stolen A3, which he tracked to a New Jersey warehouse where thieves took the car. Unable to take the files from the car while the thieves were on the scene, he was forced to steal the car from the original thieves. The midtown Manhattan showroom where the car was stolen became a real crime scene complete with police barriers around the showroom, a broken glass door, and security guards. Posters went up at the dealership, at the Javits Center in Manhattan during the New York Auto Show, and in wild-postings (handbills posted up on constructions sites, etc.) in ten cities seeking information about the stolen car. Ian is on the run, with police believing he is the original car thief.

Fake ads for www.lastresortretrievel.com, Ian and his partner Nisha's company, ran in the back of May issues of Wired, Esquire, The Robb Report and USA Today, appearing to be real ads for real companies specializing in art recovery. Spokesperson for Audi's ad agency that conceived the campaign, McKinney & Silver, Janet Northen says the ads were so much of a head-fake that a journalist from a major magazine sent an e-mail to through the site hoping to speak to Ian or partner Nisha as a source in a story. The agency e-mailed the reporter back and simply said the executives were out of the country. But the ads helped generate traffic to the Web sites tracking the story and leading those who want to play along to all the elements - blogs, online videos, e-mails between characters with streaming audio of the characters talking to one another on the phone.

It all sounds like extreme viral marketing. And it is. But Audi advertising chief Stephen Berkov says that it's this type of campaign that a company like Audi must employ to generate buzz around the launch of a new model. "I don't want to compete merely on share of voice in traditional advertising," says Berkov.

About 125,000 people were following "The Art of the Heist" online as of early May, and that number is expected to climb as more TV and print ads run helping people find the game. Audi only need to sell about 6000 A3s this year, but expects to sell about 12,000 per year for the next few years. The vehicle is aimed at 25-34 year olds who make over $125,000 per year. That is an audience that watches less and less TV, which is why Audi and McKinney have created "The Art of the Heist." Even if would-be Audi buyers don't see the ad, or even play, it's important, says Berkov, that they will hear about it because Audi can't be seen just doing the same old ad campaigns to a target that is for the most part tuning out such advertising.

Businessweek.com first reported the details of the game, which Audi kept hush-hush for weeks as the automaker tried to preserve the mystique of the game. But for details of how you can jump into the game even now, catch up and play along, Web sites to go to are www.stolenA3.com, www.lastresortretrieval.com, www.virgilkingofcode.com, http://heist.smirkbox.com/, and www.argn.com.

2006 Audi A3 Sportback by Marty Padgett (8/9/2004)
Audi improves its Golf game.

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