A Super Bowl Ad That the Biden Presidency Made Possible
GM has cast its electric vehicles as normal American cars, in a normal Super Bowl ad. Here are seven ways to think about that.
1. Here is what happens in the ad that General Motors will air during the Super Bowl: Standing in a garage inspired half by the storage unit in True Detective and half by the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia conspiracy meme, Will Ferrell announces that the United States has not adopted electric cars as quickly as Norway. He punches a globe. He fetches his friends Kenan Thompson and Awkwafina (he is on a first-name basis with both, as celebrities always are); they set off for Norway. Along the way, Ferrell describes GM’s new EV fleet. “GM’s Ultium battery is made for all types of vehicles, so soon, everyone can drive an EV,” he says.
2. It is a normal Super Bowl ad: oversaturated, slightly self-aware, blandly patriotic. The setting, a luxe subdivision, is normal. The interactions are normal. (The pandemic appears not to exist.) And, triumphantly, the cars are normal. Ferrell is driving a silver luxury crossover, which is as much the iconic family car of this decade as the station wagon was the iconic family car of the 1970s. Awkwafina and Thompson are driving GM’s new Hummer.
The only twist is that both cars—Ferrell’s Cadillac Lyriq, and his friends’ Hummer EV—have electric motors. Gone are the humpty-dumpty lines of older GM electric vehicles, such as the Chevy Bolt. Gone is the playboy sensuality of the Tesla Model 3. These are normal American cars, being driven in a normal American Super Bowl ad. Since the modern era in American climate politics began in 1988, when the NASA climate scientist James Hansen informed a U.S. Senate committee that the long-hypothesized threat of global warming had begun to make itself felt, 33 years of effort—from environmentalists, scientists, activists, engineers, bureaucrats, politicians, the whole societal caboodle—have gone into this moment, of making electric cars seem normal.
3. The point of the ad isn’t Norway. Norway is the MacGuffin, the foil for Will Ferrell’s hapless masculinity. The point of the ad is that America has lagged behind other rich countries in adopting an important piece of consumer technology, which is (1) correct and (2) partially GM’s fault.
Like, it is GM’s fault recently. Ferrell was an inspired choice, because there’s a certain type of Will Ferrell character—the flabby guy, misled by his vanities, who eventually winds up in the right place partly because of others’ love—that mirrors GM’s past few years. Because GM has had a change of heart on EVs, and it has had it since October.
4. Which is why it’s noteworthy that GM is running this ad—because GM has lately lagged behind its crosstown rival, Ford. In 2017, Mary Barra, GM’s CEO, sat next to Donald Trump when he announced a rollback of climate-pollution rules. Ford’s executive chairman, Bill Ford, opposed that rollback the next year. When the Trump administration sought to strip California of its power to regulate vehicle pollution, GM joined in the lawsuit. Ford and four foreign automakers took California’s side.
GM, in fact, continued to argue that California did not have the power to regulate vehicle pollution until November 23. 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!
This final misery capped four years of defeats. The American public has never seemed to absorb how completely the car industry—and how much GM, specifically—fumbled under Trump.
In 2016, the industry celebrated Trump’s win: Finally, here was a pro-business president that it could really work with! What it got instead was a parade of expensive inconveniences. The Obama administration had, for instance, put in rules meant to decrease the carbon pollution that cars emit from their tailpipes; automakers wanted those rules weakened; the Trump administration froze them entirely—a drastic change that had more costs than benefits. Trump harangued GM on Twitter without warning, and threatened to impose new tariffs on its supply chains. And the White House declined last year to extend the federal tax credit for EVs, a move that harmed Tesla and GM specifically while helping foreign automakers.
Federal support for these kinds of policies matters. EVs command 54 percent of the market share in Norway not because Norwegians love Tesla, but because Norway has thrown a small fjord’s worth of incentives and mandates behind them. It is safe to say that, had Trump won 81,000 more votes across four states, we would not be talking about this ad at all.
5. Ferrell really should have carpooled with Thompson and Awkwafina. They would have prevented more emissions that way. (And to be clear: EVs alone won’t eliminate carbon pollution from the transportation sector—we also need electric buses, better trains, and more public transit—but they’re much better than gas-powered cars.)
6. In the future, Americans’ mass adoption of electric vehicles will seem inevitable. After all, EVs cost less to run than gas-powered cars (because electricity is cheaper than gas); they require cheaper maintenance; they break less; they are quieter. For many types of drivers—daily commuters, for instance, or errands-around-towners—they are already preferable to gas-powered cars.
But their triumph was never written in stone. Last September, California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered that, by 2035, all new cars and light trucks sold in the state had to be emissions-free. That goal was “ambitious but feasible,” pronounced one clean-energy analyst. And this was, remember, a goal of California, a state that has always led the country in air-pollution control. Yet in late January, GM announced that it wouldn’t have any gas-powered cars to sell by 2035—because that was its deadline for going all electric.
To repeat: 20 or 30 years from now, Americans’ mass adoption of electric vehicles will seem like something that was always going to happen. I can tell you, from where I’m sitting, it’s never felt inevitable before. It feels inevitable now.
7. GM is still a profit-driven company, so regulators should seize this moment. Now that the company has demonstrated such deep and sincere concern for America’s rate of EV adoption, regulators should bind it—and every other automaker—to even more ambitious schemes. After all, that’s what Ferrell, Thompson, and Awkwafina would want.