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Why electric vehicles are so hot in the 2022 Super Bowl ads

It’s the “early stages of the biggest transition in the auto industry since the car was first invented.”

Tesla isn’t advertising in Super Bowl LVI, but it has had a heavy influence on all the other automakers advertising their new electric models.
Paul Bersebach/Orange County Register via Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

The Super Bowl is a singular moment for automakers: a chance to unveil big-budget ads with ridiculous premises, celebrity cameos, heartfelt ballads, and ... robot puppies. This year will be no different — except that a record number of the seven-figure ads that drop will also star an electric vehicle.

The average Super Bowl spot this year cost a record $6.5 million for 30 seconds, so it’s telling that General Motors, BMW, Kia, and Polestar have gone all in on ads featuring electric cars and SUVs. Nissan, one of the few car companies that chose not to solely advertise an EV, gave its electric SUV Ariya a brief cameo.

After fits and starts in EV releases, automakers are unleashing dozens of new models over the next year. A lot of different factors — including automaker confidence, consumer interest, government investments, and global competitiveness — are creating this moment for EVs not just in the US, but in Europe and China. “We’re in the early stages of the biggest transition in the auto industry since the car was first invented,” said Nick Nigro, head of the research group Atlas Public Policy. “Transitioning to electric is going to transform every facet, every aspect of building and manufacturing vehicles, and that’s a multitrillion-dollar market.”

To address climate change, the US will have to clean up its transportation sector, which is responsible for about 29 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. Accomplishing this in as little as a decade requires a boom in electric vehicle sales (as well as investments in bike and public transit infrastructure). Today, less than 1 percent of the 250 million cars, SUVs, and trucks on the road are fully electric. To meet the climate targets of the Paris agreement, the energy think tank RMI says at least one in five light-duty cars worldwide needs to be all-electric by 2030. The Biden administration’s goal is even more ambitious: half of all new car sales in the US will need to be hybrid, electric, or hydrogen-powered by 2030.

Hitting these aggressive marks requires federal investment in charging infrastructure, and tax credits to bring down the upfront costs. Electric vehicles will also need to be more cost-effective than the traditional gas-powered car. And the power sector will need to add much more clean energy, so that when you plug an electric car into an outlet, it’s not being powered by coal. (There will be other challenges to figure out along the way, like the environmental and humanitarian problems linked to the heavy metals used in the cars’ batteries).

But consumer interest is also essential for EVs to truly take off — and that’s why this Super Bowl represents something of a watershed moment.

“What the advertisements can do right now,” is help EVs go mainstream, said Britta Gross, managing director at the energy think tank RMI, who worked on EV strategy at General Motors. “Automakers don’t control demand, but they can work to build it to get everyone’s attention and start driving [it],” Gross added.

Everything is finally coming together for the electric vehicle to really take off in the US

The marketing of EVs has come a long, long way in the last 15 years. Nick Nigro of Atlas Public Policy still cringes remembering the 2010 Nissan Leaf ad where the driver hugged a polar bear — an attempt to target the environmentally conscious early adopters of EVs.

This year’s Super Bowl ads drop the environmental cliches in favor of traditional mass marketing strategy, loading up with celebrities and sports cars.

General Motors is running an ad featuring the return of the Austin Powers character, Dr. Evil, (played by Mike Myers) trying to take over the world — with an electric car. The plot makes little sense, but the ad brings climate jargon like tailpipe emissions and carbon footprints into the primetime spot to advertise GM’s lineup of 30 electric models by 2025.

GM made waves a year ago with its ad advertising the same lineup, with Will Ferrell outraged that Norway is beating America in EV sales. The ad signaled how the company had reversed course on its Trump-era attempts to weaken climate regulations for cars.

BMW, meanwhile, recruited former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to star in its ad as a past-his-prime Zeus whose Salma Hayek’s Hera cheers him up with a 2022 BMW iX.

And the newer company Polestar promises no gimmicks and puppies in a teaser for its spot for the Polestar 2.

Meanwhile, Kia uses a puppy — a robotic one — to advertise its EV6 model.

Hyundai is not running a Super Bowl ad, but has run a massive ad campaign for its Ioniq 5 EV during the NFL playoffs.

One reason there are so many Super Bowl ads this year on EVs comes down to the simple fact that these television ads do lead to sales. Kevin Krim, CEO of the advertising analytics company EDO, pointed to his firm’s data showing that in 2021, Audi commercials advertising an EV got 90 percent more viewers to search for information on an Audi than when it advertised a gas-burning Audi. It means there is even more payoff for an automaker to advertise an EV instead of a conventional car.

Manufacturers are also well aware of another important change that’s coming: The bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed Congress last year has $7.5 billion to start building thousands of charging stations throughout the country. The Biden administration hoped for a second bill that would fund even more charging stations, fund tax credits, and ensure a cleaner transition for the grid; although that reconciliation bill is dead, policies like the $12,500 tax credit per EV may still pass Congress. The Biden administration is also ramping up its regulations on tailpipe pollution, meaning the automakers will have to hit more ambitious efficiency standards across their entire fleets, an incentive for them to produce EVs.

Finally, companies like GM and Ford are eyeing the growing EV market around the world and are trying to maintain competitiveness by boosting sales in the US. “China and the EU are going to race forward no matter what,” Gross said. “If [US companies] want to sell cars and trucks globally, we have to be in that game. What does it mean to GDP if you’re not able to export vehicles anymore? That’s a big deal for our economy.”

The Super Bowl ads may be goofy, celebrity-driven attempts at whetting the appetite of a bigger mass market, but it doesn’t mean that automakers have totally figured out how to sell electric cars. Luxury EVs have found buyers, which Krim credits to Tesla. But for the EV to truly overtake the gas-powered car, automakers need to reach other segments of the market.

All this helps explain why the EV advertising business is booming. According to Krim’s firm, in 2019 there were 8,100 ads for EVs. In 2021, there were 33,000 ads, about quadruple the number of two years ago.

Experts predict more companies will tout the practical, cost-saving features of EVs to truly win over the masses. “As non-luxury automakers are getting into electric vehicle offerings, they’re featuring the convenience of not having to fill up your tank, the advantages of being all-electric,” Krim said.