Episode 58: Episode LVIII
Aaron Naparstek: Welcome back to the Cleverhood War on Cars Super Bowl pregame show, and what a difference a year makes for Team USDOT. Last year, under Coach Elaine Chao, DOT was doling out pork to highway projects in Kentucky like a three-for-one special at Denny’s. This year, Pete Buttigieg takes the reins. Doug, what’s your take?
Doug Gordon: Listen, Chao was great if you owned a cement-mixing plant in Louisville, that’s for sure. But now it’s the Boot, and he’s talking about trains and he’s talking about walkable and bikeable communities. It’s like night and day. I’m excited to see what’s gonna happen.
Aaron: The Boot’s putting together a heck of a team. But he is not married to Mitch McConnell. And that’s a big difference. Sarah, what do you think?
Sarah Goodyear: Well, the Boot brought in Trottenberg. And you guys know I had my doubts about her when she was in New York, but up here in the big leagues, I think it’s the right role for her. I like her as a special teams coach at USDOT. She’s a solid bureaucratic player, she’s comfortable with the system in DC, she looks relaxed. I’m expecting big things out of Trottenberg.
Doug: Buttigieg and Trottenberg. You know, Boot and the Trots as they call them, they remind me of Bellichick and Brady or, like, Brady and the Gronk. You know, who’s the real star? I’m excited to see this partnership going.
Aaron: Now what do you guys think? Surprises? Are there special players to watch in this new USDOT team? What should we keep our eye on?
Sarah: All right. Me? I’m watching Dani Simons, assistant to the secretary and director of public affairs. She has incredible experience in New York City. Transportation Alternatives, Summer Streets for New York City DOT. She launched Citi Bike. She worked for Waze. She could do it all. She can …
Doug: Listen, listen, listen. She’s got a resume as long as a CVS receipt, all right? And that could be a good thing, but that could be a really big red flag, you understand? Because first sign of trouble she’s out of there, right?
Sarah: What are you talking about? She’s got follow-through. She could stay the distance.
Doug: Oh, come on. Vision Zero, the numbers go up? We could be looking at some real trouble here.
Aaron: And that’s it for the Cleverhood War on Cars Super Bowl pregame show. This should be an episode for the ages. Getting ready for one of the greatest moments in podcasting. The coin toss is next. Episode 58 is on its way.
Doug: No, this is not the NFL on CBS. This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. With me remotely, of course, are my co-hosts, Sarah Goodyear and Aaron Naparstek.
Aaron: What’s up?
Doug: So in this hour, 58th episode, or should I say our LVIII episode, we critique the car ads that aired during that great celebration of American culture, capitalism and consumerism: The Super Bowl. So did you both watch the game?
Aaron: I’m American, Doug. What are you trying to say? Of course I did.
Sarah: I confess, I missed the pregame show and the first half, but I had someone taking notes for me, so …
Aaron: Yeah, I have two teen boys in the house who both are really into this stuff, so it was definitely gonna be on. And I watched it, and they were extremely bored and disappointed with the game, of course.
Doug: It was a pretty boring game overall.
Sarah: It was terrible.
Aaron: It was terrible.
Doug: It was just a blowout, basically. Never that much fun to watch a game that’s a total blowout, right?
Sarah: You know, the ads are usually the most entertaining part of the game for a lot of people, right? And this year, there was a little trepidation going in, I think, because some of the biggest players in that advertising game had said they were gonna pull back and they weren’t gonna do their usual fun stuff because of COVID and not knowing what note to hit “in these troubling times.”
Aaron: Yeah, and in fact, a lot of the car companies that you would normally expect to spend their $5.6-million per 30 seconds for a Super Bowl ad, they opted out this year. There really weren’t very many car ads. Even Budweiser kept their Clydesdale horses in the stables. Coke and Pepsi were not there. You know, there was a Mountain Dew spot, there were some other Anheuser-Busch brands, but really, it felt like a pretty subdued and small number. I don’t know, the advertising felt a little different this year in a lot of different ways.
Sarah: I think that we shouldn’t overstate the pullback though, because the auto industry still spent over $80 million on ads in the Super Bowl. So it’s not like it was exactly an austerity budget there. That’s up from where it was last year.
Aaron: Yeah. And when you’re spending about $375,000 per second of advertising, you’re clearly putting some thought, hopefully, into what you’re putting in the air in front of millions of Americans. So, you know, the Super Bowl car ads are still just a really important cultural document to sort of look at and understand, because there’s a lot of thought and effort and resources are going into these.
Doug: So if we want to win the war on cars, we really have to understand that we are up against this massive propaganda effort that is funded by millions of dollars in, not just advertising, but the highest production values, endorsements by Hollywood celebrities, and all of it is injected right into the eyeballs of 100 million people watching in a single night. You know, what messages are they taking in? What do these ads say about driving, of the future of our country, the present moment in our country? And of course, what does it say about the future of our planet? That is all stuff we are going to ask on this episode.
Sarah: Before we get to that, thankfully, you do not have to spend $5.6 million to support The War on Cars. Starting at just $2 a month, you can support us by joining our Patreon. As thanks, you’ll get stickers and access to exclusive content.
Doug: We also have a very exciting new Patreon reward. You might remember Episode 46 and our interview with artist Woodrow Phoenix about his graphic novel Crash Course. Well, we have signed copies with hand-drawn by Woodrow himself. So pick one of those up before they’re gone.
Aaron: Okay, so before we get to the straight-up car ads, let’s just go through a few of the ads that were not directly marketing car and car products, but still had a lot of car culture and relevance to the war on cars. And I thought it’d be good to start with this ad for Bud Light. Bud Light, of course, is the watery, seltzer-like beer. And this ad is premised on an overturned beer truck. So a beer truck has crashed on some remote highway, and its contents, its beers, are strewn all over the road. And a motley band of heroes appear out of nowhere to try to right the truck, and make sure it delivers its precious cargo to the convenience stores of America.
Doug: Right. So this ad is basically like Avengers: Endgame with all the heroes coming out of portals to battle Thanos, except instead of Captain America and Black Panther, you have Post Malone, Cedric the Entertainer, and characters from old Bud Light ads coming to save the day.
Sarah: Right. And the premise is that you realize that those are characters from old Bud Light ads, which I didn’t until you told me that. So anyway …
Doug: Yeah, this is the thing with our culture now, is that in order to see one movie these days or one ad, you need to have seen 20 other films. Like, that’s the only way Marvel movies, Star Wars movies and now Bud Light ads work. You have to have this deep knowledge of pop culture.
Aaron: And I felt like this ad set a kind of tone for a lot of the other ads, where there was just a lot of nostalgia. There was not much sort of looking forward to a new thing. I mean, of course, it’s the Super Bowl, so there’s always gonna be nostalgia in the ads. But, you know, in the past, you would go, like there was the famous, like, 1984 Mac computer ad that was, like, looking forward at the future of everyone having a personal computer. This Super Bowl felt very, you know, make Bud Light great again. It was very, like, nostalgic, looking back. It didn’t feel like much new was on offer here.
Doug: Symbolism for America. Perhaps our best days are behind us. Who knows?
Aaron: That’s kind of—yeah, that’s kind of what it felt like. Do we have anything to say about the fact that this was built around a truck crash, this Bud Light ad?
Sarah: I mean, it seems pretty par for the course that you have this enormous truck. It’s crashed. Theoretically, people might get hurt by driving into it after it’s crashed. And it doesn’t seem scary at all that the truck has crashed. It’s just hilarious. “Oh, no, the beer!”
Doug: “Our precious, precious beer!”
Aaron: Right. Any other, like, non-car ads that anyone noticed?
Doug: Well, so there was the Bud Light Seltzer ad, which is premised around the idea of, you know, 2020 sucked and it handed us lemons. And it takes the adage: when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. And it did that by literally depicting lemons falling out of the sky.
Sarah: Yeah, so in this apocalyptic lemon rain, there’s a moment where a cyclist gets hit by a lemon, and crashes head over handlebars into some garbage cans in a suburban street. And the neighbor sees him crash and laughs in a sneering way.
Aaron: Yeah, kind of like sadistic, suburban guy out on his front lawn, just getting jollies out of the cyclist crashing into the garbage.
Doug: And then he gets pelted himself, but he is the only person who is seen laughing at someone else for getting hurt.
Sarah: And the bicyclist looks like he could easily have—I mean, the way he falls, it looks kind of like he could have broken his neck. But it’s “so funny.”
Aaron: There was also a Watchmen vibe to that. The lemons falling out of the sky felt like the squid rain of Watchmen.
Sarah: Or there’s, in Magnolia, the frog rain?
Aaron: Oh, right.
Sarah: Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely—there’s an Old Testament apocalyptic plague vibe going on there.
Doug: So then there was an ad for Uber Eats, which—speaking of nostalgia, it was Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reprising their classic SNL characters, Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World, encouraging people to eat local. “Support Local” was the tagline. There was a cameo from Cardi B. This one wasn’t about cars, but it did, I think, say something about car culture.
Doug: So the reason I thought this was kind of about car culture is that, part of the Uber Eats advertising is that at the end of the ad, they just show the bag, the delivery bag sitting on, like, a counter, and then they run the text for the ad. And there’s no acknowledgment of the person who brought you your bag of food, probably in a car if you’re in a city, maybe on an electric bicycle. And there’s just something weird to me about this idea now of “support local, eat local” — by ordering through an app that skims off tons of service fees and money to some private venture capitalists in, like, San Francisco or Silicon Valley. If you want to support local business, call your local restaurant directly and go pick it up, or tip well when the delivery person comes. There’s just something about car culture that engenders this anonymity of the person who’s actually providing you with a service that you’re ordering.
Aaron: Yeah, this felt like in the tradition of that kind of big lie of advertising, which almost all advertising seems to contain. This one really felt sort of totally off the charts. Like, the theme was “support local,” and this is fundamentally a company that is killing the local restaurants in our neighborhoods right now. There was another one, this ad from a company called DexCom. And this is a diabetes and glucose monitoring technology. This ad featured the pop star, Nick Jonas.
Aaron: And he’s talking about all of the amazing technology we have. He keeps saying, you know, “We have the technology. We have the technology.” And there’s a quick reference at the very beginning of the ad to a man driving in a car, and he’s just got his arms back behind his head. Like he’s, you know, just relaxing, his hands are off the steering wheel and he’s driving in this car. And Nick Jonas is saying, you know, self-driving cars, we have the technology. That was interesting because, of course, we don’t have the technology. This is not the technology that exists. Don’t do that with your Tesla. You’re still supposed to keep—even when you’re in these various almost self-driving modes, you’re still supposed to keep your hands close to the steering wheel. So 100 million people were shown a technology that is—we don’t have and is very dangerous if you emulate.
Sarah: Yeah. And they’re gonna think that they can do it, but they already think that. I mean, anyway, it is good that we have the technology to monitor blood glucose in a less invasive way. So I’m behind that. I’m all for that.
Aaron: I know, but I feel like they even undermine their claim there, you know? If they’re trying to show off technologies and they’re showing us stuff that doesn’t actually exist, doesn’t exactly help them. But we’re probably the only people who know about that.
Doug: [laughs] Well, isn’t that the problem, though? I feel like the Super Bowl ads—and pop culture in general—set the tone for what people think exists. Like, they are not reading the technology papers and the blogs that are covering self-driving tech. And they don’t—no one’s watching that ad and be like, “No, actually, you have to have one hand on the wheel.” It’s like, this is gonna create problems for policymakers down the road when they try to regulate this stuff.
Sarah: All right, so those are the ads that aren’t really car ads. But because everything is car-adjacent, they have some car stuff in them. We’re gonna get to the real car ads in a minute, but first, a message from our sponsor.
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Doug: Okay, so despite there being fewer spots promoting specific car models this year, Aaron, you had mentioned that a lot of car brands sat this one out, there were still some ads from the big automakers. But what I thought was interesting is that none were the classic car commercial where a driver is speeding through an empty city on slick roads or down a nicely lit highway. You know, they weren’t, like, fording rivers or climbing a mountain in their luxury SUV, driving in a way that no human being on earth would probably drive. Most of the ads that ran weren’t even really about cars. They were stories about hope and inspiration, and all of the things we need in these trying times, as Sarah had said.
Sarah: So right. So one of these abstract, inspirational car ads that you’re talking about was the Ford “Finish Strong” ad, which I confess absolutely got me in my gut.
Aaron: So the music is a Swedish singer named Nano. We hear Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad as the voiceover. And the first half of the ad is — all the imagery is all this COVID stuff. So we’re in a hospital. We see patients who are alone. We see caregivers who are masked and gowned. We see a barber who is disinfecting his barber shop. And then we look into the eyes of the caregivers who are staring straight at us. And then we start to see, in the middle of the ad it transitions to a more hopeful thing. We see vials going through a factory, presumably these are vaccines that are being made. We see shots being given. We see patients being wheeled out of the hospital. We see a big crowd at a graduation. The music is swelling. We see people hugging each other, and a rodeo, and a concert. And hashtag #FinishStrong.
Doug: I did. I loved this ad. It did get me, Sarah, too when I first saw it. I felt a little weepy. I did think there was something funny about running an ad of, like, all right, finish strong. We are almost there. We have been to the hospital. We have been tested. The vaccines are coming. And soon we’ll be able to do graduations and barbecues. That aired during the Super Bowl, where they were also showing shots of, like, 30 people in a luxury box, all having drinks. And then, like, the crowds of people in Tampa after the game, all shouting and yelling. It’s like we would love—I would love for America to just be like, “All right, we are so close. Let’s finish strong.” But, like, we can’t. We are like a country that is failing the marshmallow test over and over and over again every day. We cannot finish strong. I wish we could.
Aaron: No. And what does it mean that Ford is running this ad?
Doug: They’ve donated something like 100 or 120 million masks to essential workers and other communities in need. And I think part of this is, like, they didn’t want to run just a car commercial when so many bad things are happening. They wanted to highlight the good work that they’re doing in our country.
Aaron: Right. But I feel like the #FinishStrong version for Ford would be like, “And we’re finished making enormous SUVs. Now we’re doing e-bikes.”
Sarah: Toyota also made a play for our heartstrings with the Paralympian swimmer Jessica Long, and showing her swimming, overcoming obstacles and triumphing.
Doug: Yeah, so just like the Ford ad, I think what Toyota is doing here, they’re just playing it safe. You know, they’re not advertising a specific car, they’re not going for laughs. They’re just trying to make everybody feel hopeful and inspired, and look forward to the Olympics or the Paralympics.
Aaron: And, you know, it’s really like maybe this is a kind of a bonus for the automakers that they get this inspirational COVID moment. Because the fact is, like, automakers, they don’t have much to sell that’s very inspirational or desirable at this point. I mean, when you look at normal car ads in a normal time, they’re not boasting about how much easier it’s gonna make your daily commute and your schlep to the grocery store and picking up the kids. So I wonder if in some ways the automakers were happy almost to be able to do these kinds of sappy, inspirational ads that are, like, entirely not about cars at all. You know what I mean? Like, it allows them to create this whole positive narrative around their brand without even noting the fact that they’re having to show you that they’re terrible products. Oh yeah, that’s the car I get into every morning. And it doesn’t really make me that happy.
Sarah: It’s true. You can see the people at the agency saying, “Thank God we don’t have to do the shot of the car going down Highway One. We can actually try to do something creative.” So I’m happy for them, I guess.
Doug: You can’t even do the shot on Highway One because I think it got washed out, right? An avalanche possibly related to climate change. So there you go.
Sarah: Exactly. Right.
Doug: Okay, so then there were three ads by a company called WeatherTech, which has run lots of ads on the Super Bowl before. They’re located in Illinois, not far from Chicago, and they make accessories for your car, such as floor mats and iPhone holders and things like that. So the three ads. there was one featuring a really busy mom using WeatherTech products as she goes through her day. And then the other two were these kind of inspirational stories of their employees, and the pride that they feel working for a company that is so committed to making products here in the US.
Aaron: Yeah, so it’s interesting. So right, the pitch is like, “We’re still here. We’re still manufacturing stuff in America, and that’s good.” And I’m totally down with that on a personal level. But the thing we’re manufacturing is, it’s floor mats for your car. And there’s something about that that I find discordant. Like, really? Is that all we’re doing now, making floor mats for the car?
Sarah: Yeah, it doesn’t seem like a real endorsement of our ingenuity and innovation and all that. However, I’m sure that the WeatherTech factories will be able to be repurposed for all those transit vehicles that the Buttigieg regime is gonna be promoting.
Doug: But I do think it says something, and we as advocates and people who are working to change cities need to come to terms with. And that is that it’s not just the big automakers like Toyota or Ford that we’re contending with here it’s, like, all of the ancillary companies that are making millions and millions of dollars to the point where they can afford three Super Bowl ads. That’s where—you know, because, like, Shimano brakes and whoever makes your bike saddles or whatever, like, they can’t afford to run ads on the Super Bowl.
Doug: And even the e-bike companies like Rad Power Bikes just got $150-million in funding, but that is like pocket change compared to what a lot of these companies are making, just making, you know, iPhone holders.
Aaron: Well, and, you know—I mean, that’s such a good point, Doug. I mean, I grew up partly in the Midwest, so I went to high school in Cleveland. And so many of my friends, you know, mostly dads, worked in businesses, often family businesses that made, like, some small electronic part that would get shipped up to Detroit for the auto industry. And that was the whole business. That was the whole family business was making this set of parts that was part of a much bigger automaker’s assembly line. And you really can’t underestimate the extent to which the auto industry has these tentacles still, even though so much of the manufacturing capacity has been exported to other places. It’s very deeply rooted all across the country.
Sarah: And saying anything negative about those businesses and those factories that are employing people at a decent wage at this time in history is obviously just a non-starter. Like, you cannot go hard against WeatherTech. You know, they really take some high ground with that ad. It makes it hard to go up against them.
Aaron: Okay, so let’s set this one up. This is an ad from a company called Vroom—V-R-O-O-M. and it’s called “Dealership Pain.” And basically what we have here is a nightmarish automobile dealership experience, where a guy in a kind of dark dreamscape is going off to buy a car. And the auto dealer is essentially a torturer.
Aaron: And so you see the guy. He’s sort of got two jumper cables, and he’s threatening to electrocute the car buyer. And then the ad suddenly flips around, and he’s sitting in his front yard on a lawn chair with his partner. And the Vroom truck pulls up with a new car just sitting there on the truck, pulls it right up to his home. And it’s a new kind of auto dealer experience.
Doug: It’s contact-free delivery. So there is a little COVID element in even this ad. That not only is the pain of buying a car at a dealership gone, if you order online from Vroom.com, you don’t have to worry about going into a building and possibly getting sick.
Aaron: You know, there’s something about this ad where I kind of like seeing a car ad that is honest about the misery of car buying, car owning, car driving. So I appreciate that part of this ad, that it’s really sort of depicting the awfulness of this automobile dealership experience.
Doug: I do think we should consider ourselves thankful to Vroom for, like, at least telling Americans that buying a car sucks. That part is good.
Sarah: But the flip side of that, as the ad flips around, is that it makes it seem like buying a car with Vroom is just like buying a sandwich with Uber Eats, and it just magically appears, and there’s no impact or friction of any kind. You can just buy a car as if you were buying anything else online. And that is kind of disturbing.
Aaron: Right. It’s like, is this really a problem that we want them to solve? No.
Doug: Keep car buying terrible, please.
Doug: Don’t change it. Make it awful.
Sarah: All right, so the next ad is—we’re going back to the nostalgia. Take yourself out of the future and go into the deep past with this ad in which Bruce Springsteen goes to a chapel in the middle of Kansas, in the middle of the United States, and finds the middle.
Doug: So in the ad, in the middle, we are seeing a drone shot of a highway, we’re seeing mountains—he literally refers to the mountain top. We see horses, we see a 40-year-old Jeep in a garage. We see Bruce himself, The Boss, driving this Jeep, putting on a cowboy hat at one point. There is overtly Christian imagery, obviously, it’s a chapel. We see the cross in front of an American flag. We see the cross on top of the chapel itself. We see crosses, like, in a field somewhere. And it is—we see a diner, you know, the kind of diner where The New York Times might send a hundred reporters to talk to Trump supporters and ask them why they voted for Trump. So we are seeing the middle, as Bruce says.
Sarah: Also, it’s kind of weird in a way that Bruce is doing this exactly this way, because as my wife said as he adjusted his cowboy hat, “This guy is from frickin’ New Jersey.” What is he doing wearing a cowboy hat?
Aaron: He’s from New Jersey, and he’s probably worth half a billion dollars. Like, he’s the least cowboy, rural Kansas guy we’ve got, you know?
Sarah: But he’s got those crinkly lines around his eyes now, so that’s like what you need to be a cowboy, I think.
Doug: We are gonna get the Bruce Springsteen fans, and I am a mild Bruce Springsteen fan. I like Bruce. They’re gonna come after us, so we have to be careful here. I will say I absolutely hated this ad. Hated it! The more I thought about it, the more I hated it. It’s terrible because there is no middle, right? What’s the middle? On the left we have people who believe in civil rights, expanding the voting franchise, making sure health care is affordable and accessible to everybody. And on the right, on the other side, we have people who tried to overthrow the government. Where is the middle of which you speak?
Sarah: But the ad is saying that the middle is in our complete slavish devotion to cool cars like the Jeep. I mean, that’s what it’s selling us, right? Is that well, we can all agree that it’s fun to drive around in a Jeep that’s powered by an internal combustion engine. Like, I think that that’s what they’re saying, and that is truly depressing to me.
Aaron: Well, and the thing that I found really annoying and even angering was this notion of the middle being this rural empty spot, this little church in Kansas. That’s the thing that I just find that—and I know, I get it. Like, that is the geographic middle of the lower 48. Okay, yes. But the notion that this rural place in Kansas is the middle is so pernicious and bad. I mean, the real middle of America is probably like an Ecuadorian food truck on the west side of Cleveland or, like, a neighborhood in Queens, or somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. Like, that’s the frickin’ middle of this country, you know what I mean? Like, Bruce standing in a chapel in rural Kansas and saying, “Hey, I’m in the middle,” is as much like him standing on, like, the top of the Empire State Building and saying that’s the middle. Like, he’s in a very extreme spot there. And this notion that the rural, white, Christian part of America is the middle is just so pernicious and bad. And I’m so bummed that Bruce Springsteen is, like, amplifying that message.
Doug: Yeah, I just absolutely despise this ad. I’m baffled as to why—like, I can kind of get my head as to why Bob Dylan came out and did the ad that he did many years ago. There’s a weird—like, he’s just a sort of weird, brilliant artist who is doing weird, brilliant things. But there was nothing—there was nothing about this ad that I felt like this was worth it for Bruce after, like, a 50-year career, like, speaking for the downtrodden, like, working person in factory towns. I mean, literally has an album called Nebraska that is all about this. And, like, why does he come out to shill for Jeep?
Sarah: And also, I mean, to me, the copy for the ad and the way he delivered it, it sounded like a speech by Ronald Reagan. And that to me was a very sad descent for Springsteen, who—I’m not a huge fan, but he did kind of represent some of the disaffection of American people about what happened in the ’80s when unions were crushed, and the whole trajectory that we’re on now, started the Reagan years. And to hear him sounding like Ronald Reagan, when he’s waving an American flag around in front of a cross in Kansas, it just, you know.
Aaron: And I mean, go back even further. I mean, think about what the Jeep really is. The Jeep is the general infantry vehicle of the US Army in World War II. It is the vehicle we used to defeat the Nazis. And now the message of this ad 80 years later is like, “Hey, Jeep is saying, like, go find middle ground with the Nazis.”
Doug: What we got in sort of patriotic, weird Christian imagery nostalgia, we then transitioned to pop culture nostalgia and comedy in two ads from General Motors. So the first one was essentially a reboot of the classic Tim Burton movie Edward Scissorhands, only this time, instead of Johnny Depp playing Edward, it’s Timothée Chalamet playing his son Edgar Scissorhands. And if you want to feel old, Winona Ryder playing his mom.
Doug: So this one is obviously playing right to our demographic, because we remember this movie, our kids don’t know it at all. And we are the potential buyers, people in our 40s and 50s, for new Cadillac or General Motors vehicles.
Sarah: One of the things that I noticed in the ad is that one of the things he’s unable to do is to ride the bus, because he’s on the bus and he tries to pull the signal to make a stop and he cuts the cord instead. And everybody else on the bus is kind of irritated by that. He can’t function in a public transit setting, but with the fabulous technology of the Cadillac, what is it?
Doug: Yeah, in the ad, he’s driving a yet-to-be released Cadillac called the LYRIQ, which is coming in 2022. It’s all electric.
Aaron: Yeah, this technology is gonna be in all these new Cadillacs, actually, I think. It’s actually what we talked about in the last episode a little bit. It’s like this super duper electronic self-driving-ish, monitors and cameras everywhere.
Doug: And that’s the big thing in this ad, is that he’s so awkward and can’t hold anything or do anything, so he takes his hands off the steering wheel, and with one of his, like, scissor fingers, touches the self-driving button, and is able now to relax and drive on a highway. And I think the really interesting thing about this tech is that there is a big disclaimer. This is not self-driving technology like we’re being promised in Wired magazine or in science fiction movies. This is, like, on select highways, very small stretches of road. You cannot use this everywhere.
Aaron: I guess I got very stuck on Edgar Scissorhands using his scissor hands to operate the Cadillac’s 38-inch touch screen. I just don’t see how he can do that.
Doug: You don’t want him to scratch it up with his scissors?
Aaron: I mean, it’s not gonna—it needs a human flesh finger on the touch screen. Like, how’s his scissor hand gonna do anything in that car? It just undermined the whole thing.
Doug: “Dear Cadillac, I am writing you to dispute the reality of your premise that a man with scissors for hands could operate.”
Aaron: It was very distracting for me, and it just undermined the premise of the whole ad.
Doug: Okay, so but the real big GM ad this year, and the one that I think got the most attention maybe of all of the ads was the No Way Norway ad starring Will Ferrell, Awkwafina and Kenan Thompson.
Doug: Okay, so in the ad, you see Will Ferrell in his sort of like disheveled Will Ferrellness. And he is in his garage, and he kind of looks like a conspiracy theorist. And he basically points out that the country of Norway is kicking America’s butt when it comes to selling electric vehicles, and we are not gonna take that. And he punches a globe, jumps in a car—another Cadillac electric vehicle—drives to Kenan Thompson’s house. Kenan’s wearing a pirate suit and says it’s his daughter’s birthday. But Will says, nope, you’ve got to come, we’re gonna go to Norway. We’re going to kick these guys’ asses. And then he goes to Awkwafina’s house, and there’s, like, a hilarious moment where she’s shooting arrows and he’s catching them. And says, “Yep, we gotta to go to Norway. Come on, meet me there.” And she and Kenan get in an electric Hummer, and Will Ferrell goes, and he’s on a container ship and they’re on their way to go kick—I think, as Will says, these lugers, a play on losers—their asses. And we’re not gonna take it. What did you guys think when you saw this ad?
Sarah: I guess that one of the great motivating things in American culture is just hating other cultures. I mean, that’s probably true in every culture but, like, hating Scandinavians in particular, because I think that it just bothers us that they live such well-ordered and normal, functional lives. And it just makes us really angry that we’re much “greater” than they are, but somehow we have a really terrible quality of life and they have a really great quality of life. And that makes us furious. I don’t know.
Aaron: I was—I loved that he had his fist smashed through the entire globe throughout the entire ad. Like, he just had his fist through the planet. And to me, Will Ferrell in this ad is—he’s embodying America, he is the American man. And he’s simultaneously dopey and conspiratorial, and has his fist smashed through the planet. But also, he wants to do better at EVs. He wants electric vehicles. He wants to beat the crap out of Norway. And I thought it was interesting how they sort of thread the needle between sort of like conservative and liberal, progressive America that way. Like, Will sort of embodies both sides.
Sarah: Yeah, he’s in the middle.
Doug: Exactly. He is the middle. I really actually enjoyed this ad because Will Ferrell is one of those—like, I would watch him read the phone book sort of comedians.
Aaron: Yeah, he’s just funny, right?
Doug: He’s just funny. When he gets on camera, he’s hilarious. What I did—along the lines of what you’re saying, Aaron, about how he embodies America. What I love about this ad is that he’s mortally offended that any other country could be doing better than America. So there’s this American exceptionalism paired with stereotypical American ignorance. Because at the end of the ad, they’re on their way to Norway. He then calls Awkwafina and Kenan. Turns out they are accidentally in Finland, and then he thinks he’s in Norway. But some woman says, “No, you’re in Sweden.” So, like, there’s that American ignorance of, like, we can’t even tell northern European countries apart.
Aaron: The difference between …
Doug: We couldn’t pick them out on a map if we tried. And yet we’re the best country in the world that is better than everybody else.
Aaron: Doug, I didn’t notice it until you pointed it out as you were describing the ad, but Will Ferrell does start the ad as this real conspiracy freak. He’s like QAnon guy. He’s got, like, maps in the background with, like, red strings connecting—pinned to the map and connecting different things to each other. Like, they really went for it with he is a conspiracy weirdo at the start of this ad.
Doug: I think actually everything that the Jeep ad with Bruce Springsteen got wrong, they got right in this ad. They showed, like, a good representation of America and pop culture, and the sort of American pop culture that everybody likes and can agree on. Like, I love Kenan. He’s been on SNL for like a hundred years. Awkwafina is hilarious. She’s in some huge movies. And who doesn’t love Will Ferrell? So, like, they kind of nailed it.
Aaron: But why aren’t Kenan and Awkwafina in the same car as Will?
Doug: We’re gonna save the world with electric vehicles, but damn you all to hell if you’re gonna make us carpool, because that is not American.
Aaron: Although I will say that the fact that they’re bringing Norway to the attention of the American public on this scale, on the Super Bowl ad scale, I actually really like that. I visited Norway in 2016, and I looked at—I got to see all of the stuff they were doing in Oslo to make the downtown car free. But I was most fascinated with the way that Norway was incentivizing and promoting the shift to electric vehicles, because they’re doing it very quickly, and they’re doing really interesting stuff. So it’s like it’s more expensive to buy a gas-burning car, it’s more expensive to park a gas-burning car. There’s just all these ways in which Norway is incentivizing this shift, that actually feels very relevant to Americans who are gonna be car dependent for some time.
Sarah: So I guess the question is, you know, can we incentivize electric vehicle adoption through just our preferred methods, which are just to have Will Ferrell do something funny that suggests that you should get an EV? Can just sheer dumb, goofy capitalism make that happen? Or might we actually have to resort to some of the taxation policies and other things that Norway has adopted to rationally incentivize? I don’t know. Maybe we are such big dumb brutes that we can be, you know, conned into getting electric vehicles by Will Ferrell. I don’t know. I’m open to that possibility.
Doug: Okay, so at the risk of going into overtime and delaying the series premiere of The Equalizer, starring Queen Latifah, Sundays at 10:00, 9:00 Central, that’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. We will put a link to all of the ads that we discussed in the show notes so you can check them out yourself.
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Doug: Don’t forget, you can get a 30 percent discount on Cleverhood’s new anorak, specifically designed for walking and biking. And you can also get 20 percent off on almost everything else in the Cleverhood store. Go to Cleverhood.com, use coupon code “waroncars” when you check out.
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Sarah: Please subscribe and rate and review The War on Cars on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Aaron: This episode was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Danny Finkel of Crucial D Design. And a very special thanks to Curtis Fox, the Cleverhood Voice of America in our parody ad, and the brilliant Michael Hearst, who composed The War on Cars NFL Game Day theme music.
Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek.
Doug: I’m Doug Gordon.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear. And this is The War on Cars.