The World Is Getting a Pickup-Truck Emoji

Thanks to Ford

Ford / Unicode Consortium / The Atlantic

It’s a solid, sturdy-looking thing. Painted a handsome navy blue, your truck has just enough rear space to haul something rugged and earthy-smelling—like a Christmas tree or a nice pile of mulch—and a front cab just big enough for you and your golden retriever. You sit there and drive, and Ezekiel hangs his head out the window (Ezekiel is your dog), and the mulch steams in the golden-hour light, and you drive somewhere pretty, like Acadia National Park or the Louvre. Then you get out and look around and sniff deeply of your mulch.

Normally, an experience like that might cost you tens of thousands of dollars. But soon it will be free, provided you are content to drive the information superhighway. Next year, at long last, the most popular type of vehicle in the United States will come to smartphones everywhere.

The world is getting a pickup-truck emoji.

Ford Motor Company sponsored the emoji’s design and proposal, and finds the occasion worth celebrating. The pickup truck has long been the “the most overlooked missing emoji,” Matt VanDyke, Ford’s director of marketing, told me this week. And the lack of a pickup emoji has been “a personal point of anger” for the company’s truck team for years, he said. “We can’t believe there’s scooter emojis when there’s not pickup-truck emojis.”

Now Ford is celebrating the debut with an online video narrated by Bryan Cranston and a campaign that cost the automaker upward of $50,000. And while that may be a drop in the bucket for a company the size of Ford—it spends more than $2.5 billion annually on advertising—the amount reveals how emoji have become a ubiquitous marketing tool. Your smartphone’s keyboard is yet another digital platform where brands, businesses, and product segments must compete for attention.

The new emoji, or at least its reference image, is clearly a Ford. It looks to be about the size of a midsize Ford Ranger, but its headlights lean forward like an old F-150. “We kind of tried to make it look like it could be both,” VanDyke said. It also has only one row of seats, even though most new pickups sold today are de facto minivans and have two. “Even most of our pickups are sold as double-cab pickups, but the traditional iconography of pickups is single cab. So we tried to stay true to that,” he said.

Though the pickup-truck proposal was provisionally approved in May, Ford did not publicize its rollout until today, which happens to be World Emoji Day, a very silly five-year-old holiday observed mostly by corporations. The announcement will sate fans such as the actor Dwayne Johnson. The granitic pro wrestler and former Ford pitchman has tweeted half a dozen times about his desire for a pickup emoji. But it also raises questions about who can influence emoji, a set of pictograms used by billions of people around the world everyday.

Emoji are overseen by the Unicode Consortium, a 28-year-old technical organization that governs the global standard for computer text. Unicode is ubiquitous: The letters you are reading right now only look like letters because the engineers who made both of our computers agreed to follow the Unicode standard. For most of its existence, the Unicode Consortium was mostly ignored by average computer users, even when it stumbled into controversy.

But in 2007, engineers at Google began working to render emoji—which had previously flourished only on Japanese phones—within the international Unicode standard. It was soon possible to type emoji on both Google- and Apple-made smartphones. By the mid-2010s, the once-sleepy Unicode Consortium found itself in charge of a global phenomenon.

So began the bonanza to make emoji—which had always borne the imprint of their Japanese manufacturing (there were always sushi emoji, and a lot of trains)—look more like the rest of the world. The taco, burrito, and mosque emoji all debuted in 2014. Emoji with black or brown skin followed the next year.

Two years ago, Ford pitched the Unicode Consortium on a pickup-truck emoji. Its proposal was declined. But Ford tried again last summer after working with the marketing firm GTB and the creative agency Blue State, according to VanDyke. That pitch was provisionally approved by Unicode’s emoji subcommittee a few months ago. “But it still has to get a final blessing,” VanDyke said.

The pitch drew on the pickup’s intensely masculine vibes. “The associations of working class, hard work, and toughness are not currently associated with any of the vehicles that exist,” in emoji, it said. Emoji, the argument seemed to be, were made for pixel pushers at the expense of earthmovers. (When asked, VanDyke said he does not believe emoji have a pro-urban bias.)

Jennifer 8. Lee, a vice chair of the Unicode emoji subcommittee, told me by text message that the pickup-truck proposal was impressive. There was only one wrinkle, she said: She didn’t know Ford was behind it. While the proposal was designed like a Ford corporate PowerPoint, it does not include the Ford logo or mention that Ford underwrote its creation. Instead, it says it was written by Nathan Maggio, then a creative director for Blue State.

That sponsorship “probably should have been disclosed,” Lee said. Other emoji proposals from corporations, such as those from Durex and Kit Kat, have noted their sponsor, she said, and Ford and Blue State should have done the same. “Some transparency would be nice,” she said.

But the lack of disclosure probably would not jeopardize the pickup emoji, she added. “It was a solid proposal,” she told me. “Companies and their agencies usually have terrible proposals and I remember [the pickup truck’s] being very good.” In a statement, a Blue State spokesman confirmed Ford was a client and that Blue State “submitted the proposal as part of the work and services we offer.” The firm has not pitched other emoji to the Unicode Consortium, he said. (Maggio, who has since left Blue State to work on a presidential campaign, did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.)

Despite those corporate efforts, generally speaking, emoji are not a high-margin business, Lee said. She volunteers for the Unicode Consortium, and she has not directly benefited from her successful efforts to create dumpling and hijab emoji. “People sometimes ask if I get royalties for the dumpling emoji and I’m like 🙄,” she said by text.

For now, the pickup emoji is barreling down the road to completion. If all goes according to plan, it will be available on iPhones and Androids next June, along with new emoji for houseplants, bubble tea, and tamales. They will join the tuk tuk and motorized-wheelchair emoji, two new transport pictograms set to debut this fall.

VanDyke is psyched. He anticipates the truck emoji being used alongside the bicep emoji, the knuckles emoji, and—of course—the ❤️. “In country music, if you didn’t have trucks, the songs would only be about beer and broken hearts,” he said.