NEW YORK - One luxury automaker is betting big that America's most affluent feel no responsibility to the greater society crumbling all around them.
Audi, the automaker, has a new ad campaign out; you may have seen its TV spot. The new campaign is running full-page newspaper ads as well. Who's Audi targeting? People of means, obviously. The targets are people who can afford, even in the Great Recession, a $50,000-plus automobile.
The affluent already have, of course, plenty of choices, and that makes life rather difficult for luxury carmakers like Audi. They need ever-fresher messages to attract the wealthy into their showrooms. And Audi now has one.
In Audi's new ad campaign, you won't find any clichéd references to "tasteful hand-finished appointments," or "head-turning style." Audi ripped its new sales message straight from Forbes and Wall Street Journal headlines that scream "budget crisis" and "government funding cutbacks."
"The roads are underfunded by $450 billion," the Audi message pronounces. "With the right car, you may never notice."
Subtle? No. Powerful? Yes. Audi is speaking straight to the anxieties of America's affluent - and offering a reprieve from an increasingly revolting reality. Sure, the new Audi ads acknowledge that the country really is falling apart. Potholes everywhere. But you don't have to worry. You can buy your way out, with their comfortable car.
As a "successful" person, the Audi ads preach, you have a responsibility only to yourself. What about those shrinking highway maintenance budgets? Not your problem. And you, as a person of means, certainly shouldn't have to pay any more in taxes to get those potholes fixed. You've made it - you can afford a car smart enough to dodge any pothole those crumbling roads throw at you.
Michael Halloran heard this message loud and clear when he read the Audi ad in the New York Times. Halloran, a past president of the Rhetoric Society of America, who teaches communications theory and practice, pays fairly close attention to the rhetorical appeals that regularly bombard us.
Halloran also, with a little jiggling of his "spending habits," could afford the new "smart" A6 luxury model Audi is now pushing. "I could enjoy the temperature-controlled leather seats and state-of-the-art audio system," he noted earlier this month, "while letting the Audi quattro drive system, Google Earth navigation system, and Audi drive select system take care of our crumbling roads."
But Halloran is passing up the Audi opportunity. He'd rather, as an affluent American, pay "more in taxes to get started on a serious effort to fix our deplorable roads." Why?
"For one thing," Halloran explains, "neither Audi nor any other car manufacturer has yet developed a soft-landing system to protect me from a bridge collapse. For another, I have grandchildren, and I'd rather not bequeath to them an America bidding for third-world status."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., agrees. The 5.6 percent surcharge on income over $1 million that Reid proposes would raise the tax bill of only the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans, a Citizens for Tax Justice analysis shows. In only one state, Connecticut, would as many as one percent of taxpayers face a higher tax bill. In over half of the nation's states - 27, to be exact - the surcharge proposal would impact only the richest 0.1 percent of taxpayers.
Yet the Senate GOP talked the surcharge, and President Obama's jobs bill, including its section to rebuild the roads, to death. Why? Because the surcharge would pay for the repairs, and much more. Reid vows to try again.
Demos think tank analyst Dianne Stewart notes that affluent Americans like Michael Halloran "think of themselves not merely as taxpayers, but as citizens, and they view taxes not just as dollars out of their pockets, but as civic capital that finances America's quality of life."
Back in the mid-20th century, a time of much greater income equality in the U.S., most affluent Americans felt that way. The 1950s rich faced tax rates much higher than the rich do today, and yet, as the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell noted last month, they "paid their taxes and went about their business."
"The wealthy of that era," Gladwell adds, "could have pushed for a world that more closely conformed to their self-interest and they chose not to."
Our wealthy today face the same choice. They can pay more in taxes or let budget cuts continue to decimate our roads, our public schools and hospitals, our firefighters, and police.
Audi's betting, suggests Diane Stewart of Demos, that today's affluent will "simply buy the cars, the school tuition, the health care, and the private security services that will allow them not to notice the giant holes in local, state, and federal budgets."
Plenty of nationally prominent politicos in the U.S. are essentially making that same bet. If they win, we all lose, even the affluent.
"In the long run," as Theodore Roosevelt, then a former president, told his fellow Americans back in 1912, "this country will not be a good place for any of us to live unless it is a reasonably good place for all of us to live in."
Teddy will likely never make it into an Audi ad.
Photo: An employee of the German carmaker Audi inspects an Audi A6 Avant model at the end of production line in Neckarsulm, Germany, in this Jan. 21, 2005 file picture. (AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle)