Let's talk about that Super Bowl ad
GM's electric vehicle ad featuring Will Ferrell tries to erase years of anti-climate work in 90 seconds.
Gas-powered cars are a huge climate problem. The transportation sector is the largest source of climate pollution in the United States, and automobiles are the largest net greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
There’s a partial solution, though, in electric-powered vehicles. So there’s a lot of good to be said about the fact that General Motors ran an electric vehicle ad during the Super Bowl last night.
It was cute and over the top, as most things starring Will Ferrell are. The comedy legend played a hot-blooded American furious over Norway’s leadership in the electric car transition. “Did you know Norway sells way more electric cars per capita than the U.S.? Norway!” Ferrell laughs and thrusts his fist through a globe. “Well I won’t stand for it.” After a kooky, albeit ill-fated, Scandinavian adventure, the ad ends with a bold text overlay. “We’re coming, Norway,” GM says. “30 new EVs by 2025. Everybody in.” Emphasis on the “Everybody.” Get it?
This ad ran during the Super Bowl. That means GM encouraged 45 million people to purchase an electric vehicle, which is one of the most significant actions a household can take to reduce its carbon footprint.
It made EVs seem cool, an important effort as the fossil fuel culture war brews.
GM also indirectly tackled the scourge of petro-masculinity in its ad by presenting a less toxic form of masculine expression to the Super Bowl crowd: still obsessed with America, profits, and competition, but centered on clean electricity instead of “Drill, baby, drill.” Call it a Musk-like electro-masculinity. We’ll take what we can get.
The most important thing to remember about GM’s Super Bowl commercial, though, is that it exists to make money for GM. It was not created because GM wants to tackle climate change, or fight petro-masculinity, or even help the U.S. beat Norway at adopting electric cars.
It was created to convince you of those things so you buy GM’s electric cars instead of Tesla’s or Volkswagen’s or Ford’s—and forget that the company just spent the last four years trying to empower climate deniers in Congress and fight the mass adoption of electric cars in America.
What GM’s Super Bowl ad didn’t say
Much ink has already been spilled on GM’s decidedly climate-unfriendly electric vehicle policy positions. “GM itself is part of the reason why there aren’t more electric vehicles on the road today,” Colin Beresford wrote yesterday in Car and Driver. “Rather than lobby for increased incentives for EV purchases—Norway's method—General Motors has spent decades lobbying for weaker emissions regulations.”
Part of that lobbying meant GM was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump’s anti-climate positions. As Robinson Meyer pointed out in The Atlantic yesterday, “In 2017, Mary Barra, GM’s CEO, sat next to Donald Trump when he announced a rollback of climate-pollution rules.” And when Trump tried to prevent California from requiring climate-friendlier vehicles, GM was one of the only big automakers to support the effort. “GM, in fact, continued to argue that California did not have the power to regulate vehicle pollution until November 23,” Meyer wrote. “Then it abruptly announced that, after thinking about it—and, perhaps, after reviewing the election results—the company had decided that California did have that power all along. A pre-Thanksgiving miracle!”
As political realities in America have quickly changed, so has GM’s position on electric cars. A few weeks after Republicans lost control of the Senate—and one day after Biden signed an executive order on climate change—GM announced it would aim to sell only zero-emission cars and trucks by 2035.
These political realities do not seem to be the ones GM wanted. As HEATED reported in December, the company’s corporate PAC funded the Senate re-election campaigns of climate deniers David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, even after it became clear that the outcome of those race would decide the climate’s future. (If Perdue or Loeffler had won, Mitch McConnell would have remained in control of the Senate, thereby ensuring Biden could never pass meaningful climate legislation). Perdue, in fact, was the top Senate recipient of GM PAC money this past election cycle.
GM funded the re-election campaigns of other climate science deniers this past election cycle, too, in an attempt to keep the Senate in Republicans hands. But it failed, and now GM appears to see the writing on the wall. Now, the company must work very hard to catch up with its rivals, who have been ahead of the curve on emissions reduction.
GM’s Super Bowl commercial is best understood as the centerpiece of that effort. And it is truly a masterful work. In just 90 seconds, the company likely convinced millions of Americans it’s a climate hero—simply by showing them one of their favorite celebrities on one of their favorite days of the year. After all, as Meyer wrote, “The American public has never seemed to absorb how completely the car industry—and how much GM, specifically—fumbled under Trump.”
A growing proportion of the American public, however, is absorbing everything just fine. And unfortunately for GM, those climate-conscious people are the ones most likely to be buying electric cars. If GM wants their money, it will take much more than a last-minute climate commitment and a 90-second Super Bowl ad to take them away from Tesla. Or Ford. Or Volkswagen. You get the gist.
Something GM could do to build consumer trust: stop funding climate deniers. The company suspended all political donations in January after the Capitol riots. It said contributions in 2021 will be “evaluated to ensure candidates align with [GM’s] core values.”
It remains to be seen if preserving a livable planet is one of GM’s “core values,” but prohibiting contributions to climate deniers could go a long way—especially since no big corporation has ever done that before. Such action by an auto company would also be incredibly meaningful given the sector’s high contribution to climate change.
Another thing GM could do: admit it tried to undermine climate science for decades. Just because a company has been terrible on climate change before doesn’t mean it can’t become a climate leader. But it does mean the company has to be willing to admit to, and be held accountable for, its prior misdeeds. And this misdeed, revealed by E&E News, is a doozy:
“The findings by E&E News reveal that GM and Ford were ‘deeply and actively engaged’ since the 1960s in understanding how their cars affected the climate, said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. "We also know that certainly by the 1980s and 1990s, the auto industry was involved in efforts to undermine climate science and stop progress to address climate change," Muffett said. "But a different path was available."
More on GM’s recent electric vehicle efforts. From the New York Times: “G.M. has already committed to spending $27 billion to introduce 30 electric vehicle models by 2025, and is building a plant in Ohio to make batteries for those cars and trucks.”
Chevron had a Super Bowl ad, too. It was dumb. I tweeted about it.Bold move for Chevron to do a super bowl commercial about how wonderful and clean they are knowing climate journalists exist
Catch of the Day:
Fish goes bananas for bananas—and naps. All great days feature both, imo.
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