Audi toys with grand theft auto

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Audi of America is backing its A3 hatchback with its biggest-ever online blitz using everything from Internet films to iTunes downloads and a viral goose chase for a missing A3.

Audi's target customers spend roughly six hours visiting six or seven Web sites in their car-shopping process, said Jim Taubitz, online marketing manager at the automaker, noting that 85% of Audi customers use the Internet for vehicle shopping. Audi already upped its online ad spending between 2003 and 2004 by 350% to $5.7 million last year, when the marketer spent a total of $78.5 million in measured media, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

The A3 doesn't officially go on sale until later this month. But Audi has a three-pronged, pre-launch effort. The most intriguing is a viral campaign to solve the mystery of an A3 allegedly stolen March 31 from Audi's Park Avenue showroom in Manhattan.

The marketer is also adding an online travelogue of a trio of young filmmakers who, starting May 3, will chronicle their cross-country travels in the A3. That deal is an extension of its sponsorship of the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles last fall. Each filmmaker is producing a short film of the trip and consumers will be able to vote online at a microsite for the car, audiusa.com/a3.

That microsite started offering 33 free downloads of music from iTunes April 14 in exchange for a test drive of the car before May 31. Thousands of people registered for the test drives in the first seven days, said Mr. Taubitz, who declined to discuss specific projections for the program. Visitors to the microsite can also get a free, three-speaker Bose audio system if they pre-order the A3 before May 12.

The viral blitz has an intricate plot involving different sites. The A3 microsite is hyperlinked to stolenA3.com, where viewers can see a video of the robbery. Fictitious characters are involved, including video game pioneer Virgil Tatum at virgilkingofcode.com and Nisha Roberts of lastresortretrieval.com, and outfit that recovers stolen art.

Independent Enlighten, Ann Arbor, is Audi's interactive agency and developed the online strategy and Web suite development, said Tom Beck, its marketing director. Enlighten worked closely with Havas' McKinney & Silver, Raleigh, N.C., which created online and offline ads promoting the microsite. McKinney's offline work includes national and regional newspaper ads and out-of home. A simple, red-and-white poster seeking help finding the missing Audi can be seen on 14th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues.

BACKLASH WORRIES?

Mr. Taubitz didn't want to discuss the details, saying he'd prefer that consumers uncover the plot themselves. He said Audi isn't concerned about possible consumer backlash after they discover the heist was a marketing ploy.

James Lileks, a Minneapolis newspaper columnist, novelist and blogger, lileks.com, first exposed the campaign last month. He unearthed it after clicking on Mr. Tatum's ad on the site of author and syndicated radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, hughhewitt.com. Wrote Mr. Lileks: "We've been had, but it's all in fun, in that not really much fun sort of way."

Ian Beavis, a car ad veteran who now has his own marketing consulting firm, called Audi's online effort time-consuming and complex. "Consumers don't mind being enticed or entertained, but not misled and it's a very delicate balance," he said.

Charlie Hughes, another auto industry veteran with his own branding consulting company, said there's not much downside to Audi's viral blitz since the target will find and pursue it.

The site of Mr. Tatum, the phony game developer, perhaps says its best about his "newest" game: "Axiom: in order to play the video game the player must be played by the game."

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