The hand-over of Hong Kong to Chinese rule is the topical backdrop to the pounds 4.5m launch of Audi's new A6 car which broke on TV earlier this week. The ad says as much about Audi as it does about the new model, the company insists. But what does it say about the state of British car advertising?

Action takes place on a rickety fishing boat approaching south Chinese waters. Harbour police stop it and search for illegal goods smuggled from the West. A voice-over talks of the impact of consumerism on Communist societies. The impassive crew watch in silence as the police leave empty- handed. The boat sails on.

Cut to the waters beneath the fishing boat's wake and we see it is towing a canvas-wrapped load. Next shot is a warehouse by a quayside where the wrappings are removed to reveal the new A6 in all its glory. Some consumers are one step ahead, the voice-over explains, as the car is seen tearing along a Chinese road. Vorsprung durch technik, as the Chinese say.

It may not sound like much, but this ad is little short of revolutionary. All too often car ads are samey and bland - slick motors racing along country roads. Or, for a bit of variety, blistering deserts. Or even burning fields.

Admittedly, the Nineties have bred a new genre with "new men" lulling screaming babies to sleep with the purr of their car's engine. Or racing effortlessly to the hospital as their wives were giving birth. Or fantasising about furtive snogs on the bonnet with ... their wives. Yet ads that really stand out are few and far between.

Some have tried too hard. Like Rover. Its latest ads feature a bomb disposal expert driving to his next job. (The Rover is as smooth as the touch required to dismantle the bomb, you see.) A second ad, with a blindfolded hostage released by turbaned tribesmen in a mountainous land, was withdrawn last week following complaints about taste.

There are, however, a few exceptions. Such as the launch campaign for the Ka, which teased the audience with glimpses of the product and a host of apparently unrelated imagery. And Audi, which has adopted a more cerebral approach.

Recent Audi campaigns rely on understatement - not an obvious advertising strategy. In the classic A4 commercial, a gauche yuppie test-drives the car, spouting all manner of grating Eighties aspirations before conceding that it's not his style. In last year's launch ad for the A3, the car is seen driving towards a gauntlet of advertising cliches: falling rocks, fire and brimstone. Instead of continuing, the A3 driver turns back. "If you want stunts, go to the circus," the strapline dryly observes.

The agency behind these ads, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, calls it an "antidote" to traditional car advertising. "Why be restricted by set agendas, is the message of the A6 launch campaign," an account manager, Richard Exon, explains. "It's about questioning the status quo."

Audi's marketing director, Neil Burrows, adds: "It is getting harder for a new car's advertising to break through in an original way. Hopefully, our approach really will be unexpected."

The new A6 is important for Audi, he explains. "It does a job for the whole Audi range. With its bold and striking design, we hope the A6 will underline what Audi stands for: style, class, reliability and good design."

Whether prospective buyers agree remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: they'll be likely to remember its name.

Meg Carter