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Electric Vehicles

Why EV Makers Had So Little to Say at the Super Bowl

Only Kia had a point to make about electric cars.

Super Bowl ads.
Heatmap Illustration/Screenshot/YouTube, Getty Images

As a young figure skater twirls around the ice rink, we see the seat next to her father is conspicuously empty. She notices, too. But not to worry: After the performance, dad and daughter drive their Kia EV9 up to her grandparents’ house in the mountains. Dad strings Edison bulbs around the adjacent frozen pond and brings out a speaker, both powered by the battery in his electric car, so the girl can recreate her performance for an adoring grandfather who watches from the window.

Besides being a tearjerker, Kia’s Super Bowl commercial this year introduced millions of Americans to one of my favorite electric vehicle features — tapping the battery for activities other than driving, such as leaving on climate control for your dog, providing backup electricity to one’s home, or running accessories from lights to power tools. However, while Sunday’s game did feature EV ads from Kia, BMW, and Volkswagen, the broadcast felt like the end of a mini-era, a time when automakers used the Super Bowl to sell Joe American on the idea that EVs are shiny and cool.

The age of EV Super Bowl ads started with Audi’s in 2019 and accelerated during the next year’s big game, when GM used LeBron James to hype the all-electric return of the Hummer. That year, 2020, marked the first time ads for EVs outnumbered those for gas cars. Super Bowl hype for EVs peaked in 2022, when seven electric vehicle ads aired compared to just two for old-school combustion. General Motors concocted an evil plan to trot out the cast of the Austin Powers movies for an EV commercial. Even now-struggling Polestar bought an ad.

Although EVs cooled as an advertising trend last year, the Super Bowl still saw a high-profile commercial with Will Ferrell that jammed GM’s electric vehicles into Netflix shows like “Bridgerton” and “Squid Game.” But the message had flipped on its head. No more, You want an electric car because they’re powerful and sexy. Instead, the ad implied: We’re putting EVs everywhere because they are ordinary — and inevitable.

By this past Sunday, the idea of selling EVs to Americans as the next big thing in tech had, with the exception of Kia’s spot, withered. BMW’s Christopher Walken commercial was, like too many during the game, an extended celebrity cameo that had little to do with the product at hand (the electric BMW i5, in case you forgot. I had to look it up.) VW’s pitch for the ID.Buzz, its electric revival of the Volkswagen bus, was soaked in nostalgia instead of flashy promises of 21st century features. GM and Ford, in the midst of sales slumps and strategy regroups over how to sell electric cars, skipped the Super Bowl this year.

The slowdown of Super Bowl EV hype sure feels like an extension of the implied malaise around the electric sector in 2024. As Heatmap has noted, EV sales are not, in fact, in the kind of freefall some headlines would suggest. Even so, a variety of struggles such as lagging charging infrastructure and uncertain tax credits as an election year looms have the automakers on edge.

The mega-platform of the Super Bowl has provided the simplest way to see what the car companies want to say about themselves and their electric futures. Until this weekend, the game had been GM’s biggest platform for proclaiming its intention to make an aggressive push in electrification. Its conspicuous absence from the Chiefs’ victory over the 49ers mirrors its real-world reversal; the Detroit behemoth is bringing back the plug-in hybrid as it cools on full EVs. Because Detroit wasn’t quite sure what to say about this moment in the EV transition, it said nothing.

And so, as we enter a gap year of electric uncertainty, a lingering question is, How will EVs be marketed now? The first wave of EV hype from the legacy car companies sought to duplicate the success of Tesla. Car ads positioned the new electric offerings not as mobility for the eco-minded, like the original Nissan Leaf, but as desirable quasi-luxury vehicles with big touchscreens and lots of LEDs — a must-have gadget on wheels.

If the Super Bowl is any indication, that approach has fizzled. Premium electrics like the Lucid Air will be sold that way, yes. But when the next big phase of electrification takes off, it will likely be because of boring, affordable cars — entry-level EVs like what Ford and Tesla reportedly have in development, or a suite of similar crossovers that mirrors the gasoline vehicles Americans families buy in droves. (Kia is already doing this successfully. Perhaps that’s why they’re the ones pushing a family-focused version of the “EVs are cool” narrative.)

Maybe the next phase of EV won’t be about the technology of tomorrow. Instead, it will be about the best car you can afford today.

Yellow

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read More

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