It’s hard to disguise Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’s the size of the man—even at 71 years old, he’s broad, if not soaring. His face has been a regular presence on screens for decades. And of course, he’s got that accent. “No one can hide the accent,” Schwarzenegger says.
Alex Davies covers autonomous vehicles and other transportation machines for WIRED.
So the men and women looking to buy an electric car at a Burbank, California, dealership weren’t fooled when a large Austrian wearing a fake mustache, wig, and Hawaiian shirt introduced himself as Howard Kleiner. Nor were they fooled by his patently ridiculous arguments against going electric: That a horribly noisy Hummer will impress rather than piss off one’s neighbors, that street cred beats a tax credit, that generating pollution is an easy way to curb overpopulation, that hitting the gas pump “is sometimes more satisfying than sex.” But the jokey lines and the confused reactions of the car shoppers produce what may be an effective ad.
The former bodybuilder is, in fact, a big fan of electric cars who signed a fair number of pro-environment bills into law during his two terms as California’s governor. And so the commercial gets serious at the end, with Schwarzenegger saying, “Electric cars save money, time, and the environment, without sacrificing any of the fun and excitement of driving.”
The “Kicking Gas” ad, which debuts Tuesday, is the work of Veloz, a consortium of more than 40 automakers, utility companies, government agencies, and advocacy groups dedicated to accelerating the adoption of electric cars in California. Veloz will share the four-minute video online, pay to promote it on Facebook and Instagram, and rent 34 digital billboards across California for four weeks to point people to the video on Veloz’s website.
“We’re really trying to move electric cars out of the early adopter phase,” says Josh Boone, Veloz’s executive director. Even if US regulations remain lax, rulemaking from Europe and especially China has pushed automakers to pledge their allegiance to an electric future. The road from here to there, though, is rough. American consumers can now choose among dozens of battery-powered models, and while sales have increased in recent years, EVs still make up fewer than 2 percent of new car purchases.
A lack of advertising may account for part of the holdup. An analysis by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management found that in 2017, various automakers including Chevrolet, Nissan, Ford, and Toyota spent five to 10 times more money promoting their gas-powered cars as their electrics.
One possible explanation is that EVs just aren’t good business. A recent McKinsey report found that while battery costs are steadily dropping, an electric can cost $12,000 more to produce than its internal combustion engine equivalent, and that carmakers “stand to lose money on almost every EV sold.” To make things worse, General Motors, Nissan, and Tesla are all facing the phase out of the federal tax credit that saved their buyers $7,500 for buying electric. It’s reasonable to prioritize advertising pickup trucks and SUVs, where automakers generate most of their profits.
The auto industry, though, points to a different reason for that gap: Electric cars demand different kinds of ads. A Ford spokesperson says running ads during NFL games may work for high-volume pickup trucks, but “EV customers are less likely to consume as much TV so we have to approach them differently.” Toyota notes that mass media doesn’t make sense for models that (at least for now) sell in such small volumes. And Mike Hayes, who runs marketing and advertising for Chevrolet’s electric offerings, says that because the ownership experience is novel to many, a 15- or 30-second TV spot isn’t much help. “You need to convey a lot of information,” he says, about how things like charging and government rebates work. That’s why these brands all focus their advertising efforts online, where views are cheaper, time is less limited, and potential buyers are easier to target. (Tesla, which has sold more EVs than anyone, doesn’t advertise at all, relying on word of mouth and the free publicity CEO Elon Musk generates.)
That makes sense, says JoAnn Sciarrino, who directs the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations at the University of Texas. Going online with a funny ad—and Schwarzenegger does have comedic talent—that people want to share is an easy way to make the most of a small budget. (Schwarzenegger did the ad for free, he says.) “Just because something doesn’t garner hundreds of millions of views isn’t bad,” she says, if your target audience is relatively small.
Volkswagen, eager to scrub its dirty diesel scandal from consumers’ minds, recently launched an ad campaign touting its electric efforts, including regular television ads. And in May, Nissan announced a slate of ads for the new generation of the Leaf, which will include TV spots.
And for now, electric car buyers remain a select group. But as battery power slowly moves into the mainstream, their numbers will increase, and maybe merit a TV ad or two. Maybe even one that will convince Schwarzenegger to buy a new electric, instead of having his enormous Hummer and Mercedes G-Wagen converted to run on batteries. Or maybe not: “I don’t like scroungy little cars,” he says.