An Audi commercial that aired in theaters and online in China is drawing ire for comparing women to used cars — another bump in the road for the German automaker, which once enjoyed nearly limitless growth in the country.
The advertisement opens in a pastoral setting, with a bride and a groom about to take their vows. But the mother of the groom frantically interrupts, rushing up the aisle to "inspect" her would-be daughter-in-law.
With a stare, the woman proceeds to pinch the bride's nose, pull back the bride's ear and then examine the inside of the bride's mouth.
"What are you doing?!" the horrified groom asks in Mandarin, as he pulls his mother away.
The older woman begins walking back to her seat, then turns around to flash an "A-Okay" hand sign.
The bride and the groom sigh in relief. But the relief is short-lived because the groom's mother again focuses her attention on the bride, this time casting a glance at her breasts. The anxious bride quickly covers her chest area with her hands.
The commercial then cuts away to footage of a red Audi sedan zipping along an empty highway, as a man's voice declares: "An important decision must be made carefully."
An animation encourages viewers to visit a website selling "Audi-approved" secondhand cars.
"Only with an official certification can you rest easy," a male voice-over says.
The response to the ad was less than stellar.
One Twitter user posted a story about the ad, adding simply: "How to make an ad that will turn off consumers."
On Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, people criticized the commercial as sexist and "disgusting."
Several users called on Audi to apologize, while some urged a boycott of the automaker.
"We had a Volkswagen at home and my husband planned to get an Audi," one Weibo user said. "I was against it — and now I see it is definitely impossible to buy any Audi car. They build shoddy cars and make a huge profit in China, and now release such a vulgar commercial. Shame on you, Audi."
"I am not a woman and I am disgusted. I'll turn to Cadillac," another Weibo user wrote.
On Wednesday, an Audi spokesman told The Washington Post that the company "deeply regrets" the commercial, which was produced exclusively for the Chinese market, and said it has been completely withdrawn.
"The ad's perception that has been created for many people does not correspond to the values of our company in any way," Audi spokesman Moritz Drechsel said in an email. "The responsible department of the joint venture has arranged a thorough investigation of the internal control and coordination processes so that an incident like this can be excluded in the future."
A Weibo page devoted to the topic has received more than 200,000 views, and videos of the commercial on the microblogging site have been shared thousands of times. One Weibo user was insulted that the company had targeted its Chinese market with a commercial that made assumptions about relationship dynamics in the country.
"The annoying thing about Audi's used-car ad, besides its objectification of women, is that it thinks Chinese customers deserve only commercials like this," the user wrote. "It assumes romantic relationships for Chinese men and women are just like this: dominated by the mother-in-law, controlled by the male and with a passive female. … Would Audi air such a discriminatory commercial in Europe or the U.S.?"
Audi, which is owned by the Volkswagen Group, had "virtually created China's luxury car market" more than two decades ago, according to Automotive News, but in recent years has struggled to ward off competition from brands such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Bloomberg News reported earlier this year that Audi's China sales in January had dropped 35 percent from the year before.
This is not the first time an advertisement for secondhand cars has been deemed sexist.
In 2008, BMW released a print ad in Greece promoting its used cars that featured a pouting model gazing at the camera. The tagline read: "You know you're not the first."
The ad was pulled after outrage ensued — though it didn't stop at least one local car dealership from using the ad as an inspiration for its own.
There has, of course, been a long history of using suggestive advertising to sell many things, cars notwithstanding. Jalopnik reporter Matt Hardigree rounded up 10 egregious examples from past decades of auto advertising, particularly from the 1960s, when copywriters in a male-dominated advertising industry were "horribly sexist."
"Sex sells and these ten highly-suggestive automotive print ads show how far automakers are willing to go to sell cars," Hardigree wrote.
Shirley Feng contributed to this report. This post has been updated.