Episode 81: Vapor Bowl Tailgate Party with Amy Westervelt
Doug Gordon: There’s some language and topics of discussion in this episode that might not be appropriate for young children. So if you’re in the car, you might want to wait until you’re home and alone to listen to this episode. And seriously, driving with children? It’s like one of the most dangerous things you can do. So you probably shouldn’t do that either.
Aaron Naparstek: Rad Power Bikes Studio, Brooklyn, New York. The site of episode 81. I’m Aaron Naparstek, here with my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear. And welcome to the 2022 Rad Power Bikes Super Bowl Special brought to you by Rad Power Bikes. Doug. Sarah.
Sarah Goodyear: [laughs] Like, me trying to keep a straight face through that.
Doug: In case you didn’t catch that, we are sponsored by Rad Power Bikes.
Aaron: Guys, that was basically the verbatim opening by Al Michaels of the Super Bowl.
Doug: And you did a fantastic job.
Sarah: You actually sounded like you were auditioning to host American Ninja Warrior.
Aaron: I just replaced Crypto.com with Rad Power Bikes and we’re there.
Sarah: There you go.
Doug: Well done.
Aaron: So here we are. We’re back once again for our annual dissection of Super Bowl car ads, and it is truly one of my favorite episodes.
Doug: This is our third time doing this, as a matter of fact. It’s a lot of fun.
Aaron: So the Super Bowl is the biggest day of the year for car ads, and that makes a great opportunity for us here at The War on Cars to sort of gather intelligence. You know, if we want to figure out how to make it so that there are fewer cars in American cities, it’s really useful to see how the automobile industry convinces Americans to make it so that there are more cars in American cities.
Sarah: The Super Bowl is where automakers present their new products and more importantly, their new marketing pitch for the coming year. And these vehicles that you see in these ads are the ones that are gonna be clogging your neighborhood streets in a year or two—maybe. Some of them. We’ll talk about that later. The fact that some of these …
Aaron: Some are just pure vaporware.
Sarah: [laughs] Yeah, exactly! May never exist at all.
Doug: And the thing is, there won’t be a local election or a community board meeting where you can stand up and cast a vote against 8,000-pound electric SUVs that can mow down children in your neighborhood. The automobile industry basically just says, “Here you go,” spends millions of dollars and has enormous unchecked power to shape our city streets and transportation.
Aaron: And the advertisers on this year’s Super Bowl reportedly paid an average of $6.5-million per minute. They were broadcasting their messages to an audience of somewhere over 100 million viewers. That is a whopping $108,000 per second.
Doug: To put that in Patreon terms, that’s like a million times more than our Patreon base. We cannot afford a Super Bowl ad. No way.
Aaron: Yeah, we need to step it up.
Sarah: And it’s worth paying attention to these enormously expensive ads because the Super Bowl remains one of the few things in American culture that is shared widely across politics, across race, across region. You know, this is like the closest we have to a national water cooler moment every year. And so that’s why it’s really crucial because our feelings are being manipulated, our emotions are being manipulated to attach us to vehicles during this one brief communal moment that we have.
Aaron: Super Bowl car ads are like the pinnacle of automobile industry propaganda. And today we have the perfect guest. Zooming in with us from California to talk about corporate propaganda, Amy Westervelt, welcome to The War on Cars.
Amy Westervelt: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited to talk about car ads. [laughs]
Doug: Amy, I’m so excited to have you on because I am—I’m on episode five of your new podcast, Rigged. For people who don’t know about it, you should go check it out, you should go subscribe. It’s all about corporate-funded disinformation, and how it has shaped the world we live in today. It has a lot to do with the fossil fuel industry and climate change. Your work is outstanding, so I’m super psyched that you’re here.
Sarah: Yeah. And Amy is also the host of the podcast Drilled, which is described as “A true crime podcast about climate change.” That’s been around for six seasons, exposing decades of propaganda generated and spread by the fossil fuel industry. She also co-hosts the climate podcast Hot Take with Mary Annaïse Heglar, and is the founder of the woman-run Critical Frequency Podcast Network.
Aaron: This should be like a self-help episode about how to be as productive as Amy. That’s what I need.
Doug: I’m in awe of your output. Yeah.
Sarah: I’m just going to pretend that …
Amy Westervelt: It’s just insomnia, guys. It’s just insomnia. [laughs]
Sarah: It’s not about comparisons, folks. Everybody does their own thing.
Amy Westervelt: That’s right. That’s right.
Doug: I can’t—I can’t compare to Amy.
Aaron: Okay, so before we delve into the actual car ads, do you guys just want to talk about—should we just talk about the Super Bowl? Like, people’s broad impressions?
Doug: Yeah. Did you all watch the game? That’s an important question.
Sarah: I did. I did, because I do live in a football household. I am not a person who is a football person, but I do live with a football person. So yes, I watched it. And I’m happy to say that finally, because this was the Gen-X Sellout Bowl, that finally I’m being pandered to.
Amy Westervelt: [laughs]
Sarah: And it may just be this one year that I get pandered to, but that halftime show was very successfully aimed at me. And thanks America for finally noticing that we were here.
Aaron: It made me feel a little old that Dr. Dre is like—he’s all safe and oldies music now.
Sarah: Right. And Snoop is America’s dad. America’s high dad.
Amy Westervelt: [laughs]
Doug: Amy, did you watch the game?
Amy Westervelt: I did not. My husband uses the word “football” to refer to soccer. He’s from Scotland, so he’s just like, “I don’t understand this game!” And I just didn’t grow up in a football household. I don’t know. We were like a baseball and basketball house growing up. So yeah. No, I didn’t. I didn’t. I missed the whole thing.
Aaron: You know, the game, as is often the case, was a little bit boring, even though this was a relatively good game. But, you know, the ads were pretty interesting. And to me, just as an overarching theme, it felt like this set of, like, cryptocurrency and sports betting apps and electric vehicles that don’t quite exist, VR technology, there was a way in which it felt like, okay, we have reached the end of the Great American Ponzi scheme here. As Cory Doctorow said a few episodes ago, the bezzle is up, folks.
Aaron: That was my take away from these ads.
Doug: Yeah. I mean, the other thing that I noticed about this—because we did this episode last year—last year’s ads were all, “In these trying times, we’re all in this together,” and this year was like, “Fuck the pandemic. America rocks!” There was no mention of “In these trying times” or anything like that. It was just a carnival. Pure American orgy of consumerism.
Aaron: Wait. So Amy, you didn’t watch the game, but you did watch the ads, right?
Amy Westervelt: I did. I did.
Aaron: And so yeah, what was your takeaway?
Amy Westervelt: Oh God, it was so depressing because, yeah, it just feels like, okay, late-stage capitalism. Here we go! [laughs] You know? Everything was like, “The future’s so shiny and bright, but also, like, complete bullshit.” You know? “Give us your money in exchange for a tiny sliver of hope that there is a future out there that is slightly better.” Just really, really depressing and, like, escapist but also dystopian? It was just a weird, weird combo.
Sarah: Mmhmm. Yeah. Escapist, but also dystopian. That is the 2022 vibe all over.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah!
Aaron: Was that because the products were so intangible? Like, what was it that made it feel more like that this year?
Amy Westervelt: For me, it was like, honestly—okay, can I curse on your podcast?
Doug: I’ve said a few myself. Go for it.
Amy Westervelt: Okay, great. It felt like every technocratic bro’s jerk-off dream. Like, the entire thing. [laughs]
Doug: We’re gonna put a disclaimer on this episode, but continue.
Amy Westervelt: It was like—I was just like, okay, like, robotic dogs and fucking living in VR and, like, reanimating animatronic characters from your childhood as, like, your dream VR thing? I mean, it was just like, wow, who is—who is this for?
Aaron: Yeah, who wants this?
Amy Westervelt: Who wants this?
Aaron: Who wants this vision of the world?
Amy Westervelt: Frigging bringing back Dr. Evil? Like, what? That also seemed like another Gen X thing. I was like, are they trying to reach those of us who really loved Austin Powers when it came out?
Sarah: We’re gonna get deep into all of those ads that you just talked about, Amy. So let’s hold off.
Amy Westervelt: Yes.
Aaron: Okay, so this first ad we want to play is for an electric car called the Polestar 2. So basically, this ad opens on a black screen, and it’s got this soundtrack that sounds like something from the movie Dune. And it’s just white text on a screen as the camera sort of moves across the silhouette of the body of a car with these, like, lines of text that say “No punchlines, no Dieselgate, no dirty secrets, no empty promises.”
Sarah: “No greenwashing.”
Aaron: Right. No greenwashing.
Amy Westervelt: [laughs] That’s like my favorite. That’s my favorite!
Sarah: Oh God!
Aaron: And after the beat drops, it says, “No blah blah blah. No settling. No committees. No consensus. No compromises.” So it’s all these kind of very knowing messages about climate change and the sort of big UN committee processes to deal with climate change.
Doug: My big question watching this ad is: did you have to have seen Polestar 1 to understand Polestar 2?
Amy Westervelt: [laughs]
Aaron: The sequel. I hope not. But yeah, what did you guys think of this one?
Amy Westervelt: Oh, man. My first thought was like, “This is like if the API decided to make a climate ad,” the American Petroleum Institute. Like, this is literally their Super Bowl ad from five years ago, but for an EV.
Aaron: How so?
Amy Westervelt: I mean, exactly the same. It’s like the booming music, the, like, stark text that’s like, “We’re not doing this! We’re not doing that!” You know?
Sarah: And then that line, “No blah blah blah.” I mean, you must—do you get the reference there?
Amy Westervelt: I don’t think I do, no.
Sarah: Do those words sound familiar to you? Because I didn’t get them.
Amy Westervelt: Oh, it’s Greta!
Amy Westervelt: Oh my God!
Aaron: They’re literally stealing lines from Greta Thunberg.
Amy Westervelt: Wow!
Doug: It’s when she stood up at the UN and basically kind of threw down in front of all the delegates and said, “No more blah blah blah. Do something”
Amy Westervelt: That’s right. Oh my God. Wow. I missed that the first, like, three times I watched it. [laughs] Oh, jeez!
Aaron: It actually made me think about your work, Amy, because here we have this corporation that’s telling us, “Look, forget the committees. Forget building consensus. Forget your United Nations process. Forget your government. Depend on us, the corporation.”
Amy Westervelt: Right.
Aaron: “We’re gonna solve climate change.” Right?
Amy Westervelt: Well, and it’s also leaning so hard into the whole American individualism thing. The individual will save us. Capitalism will save us. Corporations will save us. Blech! Yeah.
Sarah: Yeah. And also, I was really struck by the sort of sinister quality of it.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah.
Sarah: The music is sinister. And then it’s the word “No.” No. No. No. No. And it’s like, I can just feel my brain being manipulated there.
Doug: I mean, what is America right now, if not a lot of people screaming at their government “No!”?
Sarah: Yeah, that’s true.
Sarah: And like, “Yeah, we’re in dark times, but you’re gonna have this car and you’re gonna be able to drive it around, and you’re not gonna compromise. No!” And I just found it, you know, as they say, like, if an ad doesn’t speak to you, you’re probably not the target audience. And I think that I am probably not the target audience for this one.
Doug: You think a co-host of The War on Cars is not a target audience for most of the Super Bowl ads? I wonder, yeah.
Sarah: I can be manipulated.
Doug: They gave you the halftime show, they’re not giving you the ads.
Sarah: [laughs] That’s right. I’m just gonna hang out with Snoop on the bleachers and we’re gonna just …
Doug: … smoke a little bit and hang out.
Aaron: Well, I fully expect to see some Polestar 2s on the streets of Park Slope, Cambridge, Mass., Berkeley, California, Boulder and Northwest DC any time soon, because I feel like that—there was something about the message that was so, like, you know, we’re the climate change solution that’s gonna appeal to people who care about that issue.
Doug: There was also the “No conquering Mars” line.
Aaron: Oh yeah.
Doug: Which was a little insult at Elon Musk, our best friend on this podcast. You know, they’re basically saying, like, “We take this shit seriously. This isn’t a lark for us. We’re doing the work.”
Sarah: It’s very, like, impersonal. There’s not a personality attached to it, there’s not a human being attached to it. It’s just this sort of pure, this pure car.
Doug: No voiceover.
Doug: Okay, so our next ad is from a Super Bowl regular. It’s from the WeatherTech company, which is based out of Illinois. They ran a few ads last year, and they are back with the new one. So it’s a suburban-looking house with a bunch of packages on the front porch. And we are seeing this through night vision goggles. A man walks out of the house and sees a bunch of packages.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, WeatherTech ad — Husband: “Yes! Hon? The WeatherTech’s here!]
Doug: All of a sudden, these guys in black tactical suits pop out of the pond, they’re coming out of the bushes, they descend from a helicopter. It’s sort of like a cross between SEAL Team Six and a NASCAR pit crew.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, WeatherTech ad – Narrator: WeatherTech is the ultimate protection for your vehicle. Laser-measured floor liners, no drill mud flaps, cargo liner, bump step, seat protector and cup phone.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, WeatherTech ad – Wife: What about my car?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, WeatherTech ad – Narrator: WeatherTech!]
Doug: And then at the end, a woman comes out and she wants her militarized WeatherTech shit also.
Doug: Okay, so Amy, can we start with you? I feel like you’re the best critic of these things because you didn’t watch the game in real time, even though you’ve seen some of this stuff. What did you think of this ad?
Amy Westervelt: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, this was like another one that made me go, like, “Jesus!” I didn’t—I mean, I guess I knew it was rough out there, but the militarized goggles in the WeatherTech ad were just ridiculous. [laughs] Also, like, I’m sorry. You do not need WeatherTech in the suburbs, okay? You just don’t. [laughs]
Aaron: It’s really true.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, the thing at the end with the wife, that’s like, “What about my car?” is both, like, gross pandering, but also, like, sort of re-emphasizing the idea that every household needs two cars, you know? In a way that was like, bleah, a nice little cherry on top at the end.
Sarah: It’s this idea that you need to outfit your personal vehicle like a military vehicle in order to face the world out there.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah.
Sarah: I mean, you know, it’s obviously done tongue in cheek, but that’s the way a lot of Americans see the world.
Amy Westervelt: Right. And I feel like the militarizing thing, I just was like, oh, wow, is this kind of tapping into this underlying sense of dread that a lot of Americans have that, like, we might be heading into civil war? There is a societal breakdown happening? What happens when extreme weather events get layered on top of that? And, you know, I feel like there is this general trend towards, like, you know, survivalist kind of mentality. And, you know, that combined with sort of American individualism, it’s like, “I gotta, like, get my bunker ready!”
Aaron: I mean, there’s all those anxieties, but the real anxiety is someone stealing my packages from my front porch, right?
Aaron: Like, the ad opens with, like, night vision goggles on the packages on the front porch.
Doug: A legit problem in much of America.
Sarah: That’s right.
Aaron: The true anxiety of America today.
Sarah: All right. We’ve got some big ads with celebrities coming up. But first, we have to do one that’s a little bit softer around the edges, shall we say? It’s the Kia RoboDog. The ad starts, and we’re staring through the window of an electronics store at an adorable toy robot dog with a $299 price tag. The robo-dog sees a man outside on the street. He’s unplugging his car from an EV charger. Wags his tail, widens his eyes. The guy in the car drives off, but the robo-dog escapes the store, starts chasing the car down the street, running through people on the sidewalk. He really wants to catch this car. The ad climaxes when the robo-dog, who’s gotten up onto a roof, the dog just leaps toward the car. At that moment, we see its battery light is blinking low. It runs out of power and it shuts down. It’s all okay because the handsome car owner is there to plug in his charger into the dog, and they live happily ever after, with the dog sticking his head out the window as they go down the street.
Aaron: Tagline “Live life fully charged.”
Aaron: What the hell’s going on here?
Sarah: I don’t know. Can somebody explain this to me?
Amy Westervelt: I found it so disturbing. It really creeped me out. The robot dog creeped me out. I was like, “What’s happening here?” And then the sort of like guy saving the dead electric dog at the end with the charge. Bleah!
Doug: In the Westworld version of this, the dog later murders that man.
Amy Westervelt: Yes! It did. It reminded me of Westworld! There was just something deeply creepy about it to me.
Doug: The uncanny valley aspect of it all, right?
Amy Westervelt: Totally. Totally. And again, maybe partly because I watched it kind of in the context of all the other ads that were also promising this weird, like, techno future that I don’t see as a utopia myself. So yeah, it was creepy.
Doug: It’s sending a message that drivers are good. This very handsome guy is gonna stop and he’s gonna stop on the side of the road and pick up this cute little children’s toy, nurse it back to life with power from his automobile. And as our listeners know, that’s just not how drivers work. Like, they would run you over as soon as look at you. They’re not gonna stop for something on the side of the road. So I think it’s selling this image that you can be a good person and just buy this car. That’s sort of the theme of a lot of the ads that we’re gonna be talking about, too. You can be good if you just buy this car.
Sarah: And not for nothing, it’s a man who’s manly and, you know, has a beard, but he’s being sensitive. And this is …
Doug: Yeah, they didn’t cast a dude in a bike helmet for this one, right?
Sarah: Well, but also they didn’t cast a woman.
Sarah: This is about, you know, non-toxic masculinity, right? This is about nurturing. The nurturing father. Anyway …
Aaron: Nurture your robot dogs.
Aaron: Well, we should really take a break for a little bit of corporate propaganda of our own.
[MALE NARRATOR: The all new 2024 Ford Tough truck. Tough drivers who want to feel tough doing tough … [coughs]]
[FEMALE NARRATOR: The truth is that nearly half of all car trips are three miles or less. So most of the time, all you need is an electric bike. Rad Power Bikes get more people on bikes and out of cars. That means fewer idling engines, less traffic, cleaner air and more fun. Rad Power Bikes can take you 45 miles on a single charge—enough for you to go everywhere you need to each week without burning the few gallons of gas it takes to power one of those “tough trucks.” Now through February 27, you can save $100 on a classic RadCity 4 or a RadCity 3 Step-Thru. Visit RadPowerBikes.com and use promo code “citysafe.”]
[MALE NARRATOR: Again, that’s RadPowerBikes.com. [coughs]
[FEMALE NARRATOR: [clears throat] Transforming the way we live, and helping to win the war on cars.]
Doug: I’m guessing we did not get $6.5 million for that ad.
Amy Westervelt: [laughs]
Aaron: Definitely not.
Sarah: The way I know that is that I’m still here.
Amy Westervelt: [laughs]
Doug: Okay, so we are now in a part of our show and the game where celebrities and you’re sort of more traditional car ads come into play. And we’ve got a run of ads with big movie stars and comedians the way it’s meant to be. And so our first of those ads is for the Toyota Tundra. It’s an ad called “Keeping Up With the Joneses.” Two enormous pickup trucks pull up next to each other at a rural intersection somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Leslie Jones: What’s up, Jones?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Tommy Lee Jones: Jones!]
Doug: And its comedian Leslie Jones and actor Tommy Lee Jones. They drive off. A race ensues. They are driving like sociopaths, and they swerve off road.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Leslie Jones: Jones!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rashida Jones: Oh, hey Jones!]
Doug: They are joined by actress Rashida Jones. She’s in another pickup truck, and they drive through a place called Jones Pass. If you notice the music there, it’s “It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones. And basically, all three gigantic trucks, they are parked at the top of a snowy mountain.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tommy Lee Jones: Jones!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Leslie Jones: Jones?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rashida Jones: Jones?]
Doug: A fourth truck pulls up, and it’s a young guy.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Leslie Jones: Jonas?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nick Jonas: Yeah, it’s keeping up with the Jonases now.]
Doug: Singer Nick Jonas.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tommy Lee Jones: Try to keep up, whoever you are.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Narrator: Stay ahead in the all new Tundra.]
Doug: And so we just have the crusty old Tommy Lee Jones sneering at the young pop star.
Aaron: Try to keep up, whoever you are.
Amy Westervelt: [laughs]
Doug: What—Amy, you can go first. What did you think of this one?
Amy Westervelt: Oh, this actually felt like a real flashback to me. I was like, “Huh, okay.” Like, amidst all of the sort of, you know, future dystopian stuff, we have this very kind of traditional car ad of people driving around in the wilderness, you know, racing each other. Also, those trucks would not handle that way in snow, I’m just gonna say. Like, as someone who does have to drive in snow quite a bit myself, I was like, “Okay, sure.” [laughs]
Aaron: You’re just gonna be spinning your wheels, Tom. Mr. Jones. Mrs. Jones.
Amy Westervelt: Yeah, it was so hokey, you know? It was like celebrities racing trucks, and then a dumb play on words at the end. Yeah, I don’t know. It just—it felt like an ad that could have been made in the ’90s.
Aaron: It’s interesting that you note that too, because this was the only car ad, I believe, that was not for an electric vehicle. Toyota was not pushing EVs in their Super Bowl ads. I believe every other carmaker was selling EVs, so it kind of fits in a way that, like, they’re—you know, the content of their ad is sort of old fashioned because they’re kind of selling these old fashioned gas-burning cars.
Sarah: Yeah, but I think that there is this thing underneath that is—that some of this future anxiety is still there just by virtue of, you know, being in this snowy landscape which everybody knows that snow, like, you know, is sort of an endangered substance at this point thanks to these cars. And that the wilderness that they’re driving into and mashing up with their wheels is also an endangered thing that probably a lot of us will never see in that way. And so I feel like it was tweaking that anxiety to just get us into that space where we’re like, “Oh, I need to buy something, otherwise I’m gonna just feel terrible.”
Doug: They should almost have run the ad backwards. Start in the snow, go through the desert and end at a Whole Foods parking lot, which is more where you’re probably gonna be driving this thing. You know, I think—if you think about the Super Bowl, Sarah, as you said, as this big communal American event, imagine you’re watching the game with the whole family: the oldest person you know and the youngest person you know. This felt to me like the most focus group ad I’ve ever seen. You have the old Tommy Lee Jones from, you know, movies like The Fugitive and—you know, which I’m sure my kids do not know. You had Leslie Jones, SNL, who, you know, covers—she’s a Black woman. So we’ve got, like, the old white dude, the young Black woman. We’ve got Rashida Jones from The Office, TV comedy on NBC. And then you’ve got Nick Jonas to appeal to the youngs, right?
Doug: And so it’s like you can almost hear Grandpa saying, like, “Who’s that young guy?” And you can hear, you know, the 12-year-old saying, “Who’s the old dude?” And everyone having a laugh together.
Amy Westervelt: [laughs]
Sarah: “Ha ha ha. We’re melting the planet! Ha ha ha!”
Doug: But we can do it together!
Aaron: And this notion of keeping up with the Joneses, the theme that, you know, the ad lands on?
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. Just more of the same. Like God, again, big late-stage capitalism vibes. Like, everybody just competing for scraps here, trying—trying to win at the end.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s gross.
Aaron: Okay, so this ad is immediately recognizable as the iconic opening theme song and visual montage for HBO’s The Sopranos. So you’ve got an SUV, and it’s just sort of driving through this highway-industrial netherworld of New Jersey just outside of Manhattan. This is today’s Manhattan. You’ve got the finger thin, ultra luxury condos in the distance. Not Tony Soprano’s late-’90s Manhattan. And it’s not Tony in the car, either. There’s a woman, she’s wearing sunglasses behind the wheel. We see that she’s sucking on a lollipop instead of Tony Soprano chomping on his cigar. Now the big car is driving through the old Italian section of Newark, where a lot of The Sopranos was set. They’re doing an amazing job of shot for shot replicating the opening of this hit TV series, The Sopranos. Now we see that it’s not Tony’s big old Chevy Suburban, it’s this humongous dark blue pickup truck with tinted windows—very sleek and modern looking. It pulls up to an electric vehicle charging station, and that’s not just any woman driving the truck.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Narrator: A whole new truck for a whole new generation.]
Aaron: It is Tony’s daughter, Meadow Soprano. And then Tony’s son, Anthony Junior, walks up, and just as the “Got yourself a gun” lyric kicks in, Meadow unholsters the EV charger and sticks it into the truck.
Sarah: If you didn’t get that, this was a shot by shot recreation of the opening sequence of The Sopranos, you were just—I was just like, “What is happening? Why are they showing a woman driving through …?
Aaron: Sarah did not watch The Sopranos.
Sarah: … like, literally the worst place to drive in the entire United States of America? Like, why are they showing that? I was so mystified.
Doug: Well, two points for honesty, because if you weren’t aware of The Sopranos reference, then at least you’re finally seeing a car driven in the environment in which it is actually going to be used. They’re not on a mountain, they’re not in the desert. They are driving on the New Jersey Turnpike. That is how most people are gonna be using these behemoth trucks.
Aaron: Not to mention, like, The Sopranos is fundamentally a series about a deeply unhappy, sociopathic guy who drives around in a gigantic SUV all day.
Doug: So the funny thing about this is that you can actually track the bloat of American automobiles with the cars that are used in The Sopranos. So the series debuts in 1999, and Tony is driving a Suburban, which at the time weighed 4,700 pounds. By 2003, he is driving an Escalade, which weighs about 5,400 pounds empty. And this 2024 Silverado EV that they’re advertising in this shot-for-shot remake of the opening, it’s estimated to weigh between 7,000 and 8,000 pounds. So a massive jump up in completely unnecessary weight. And it’s all embodied in the Tony-to-Meadow Soprano next generation advertisement.
Aaron: Amy, you weren’t a Sopranos watcher, but did you have any thoughts on this one?
Amy Westervelt: I wasn’t, but I had watched enough to know that this was Meadow Soprano and get the, like, next generation thing. But, you know, actually what this reminded me of was just like, oh wow, this is a real, like, faithful updated EV version of, like, super phallic car advertising. [laughs] It’s like the, like, giant car, and she’s, like, sticking the EV thing in there, and she’s, like, sucking on a lollipop the whole time. I was like, “This is really—what, did Eddie Bernays design this ad? Because there’s a lot happening here.
Sarah: Wait a second, Amy, because you just mentioned Eddie Bernays, and he is one of the most fascinating figures in history. Could you explain for our listeners?
Amy Westervelt: Yes. He was Sigmund Freud’s double nephew, actually. I think it was like his mom was Freud’s sister. And then Freud was married to Bernays’s dad’s sister. So he was his uncle on both sides in a weird, Freudian twist. [laughs] And so he, you know, grew up kind of learning about psychoanalysis and all of these things at the dinner table, and went on to become one of the first PR guys in the world, actually. And, in fact, is the guy responsible for calling it “public relations,” which was a rebrand from “propaganda.” And he is also the guy responsible for bringing in all of the phallic references to car advertising. That was a direct line from Freud to Bernays to car ads. So, you know, he was doing this way back in the very first car ads, you know, sort of connecting car size to penis size and, you know, car power to sexual prowess and virility, and sort of all of these kinds of things. And I—that was like the big sort of flashing light of this ad to me. [laughs] I was just like, this reminds me a lot of the ads that Bernays was doing for car companies, like, in the ’50s.
Sarah: And the other thing that he did, if I’m correct, is he helped to popularize the idea that women should be able to smoke cigarettes.
Amy Westervelt: He did!
Sarah: As much as they wanted. And so that’s like that phallic thing, right? Like, it’s the same thing that we saw in the WeatherTech ad. It’s like, you can have a dick too, girls.
Amy Westervelt: Yes!
Sarah: Come on, right?
Amy Westervelt: Totally. Totally. He was tasked by the American Tobacco Company with trying to break down a social taboo against women smoking. This is like, you know, in the, like, 19-teens. And he actually went to an expert in psychoanalysis to talk through, you know, what he could tap into there, and they landed on penis envy. And so he staged a fake women’s empowerment protest, where he asked a bunch of his friends’ daughters, like socialite daughters, to come on down to Fifth Avenue and march up and down the street smoking cigarettes, which he called “torches of freedom.” [laughs]
Amy Westervelt: Yeah. He was—I mean, honestly, he was a total genius, but really wreaked some havoc on society.
Sarah: A total genius, who is perhaps an evil genius.
Amy Westervelt: Yes. The real Dr. Evil, yeah.
Doug: Sarah, that’s an incredible segue. I was looking at you hoping that you would just take the softball pitch from Amy and just knock it out of the park, and you did. Let us get to our next ad.
Sarah: This ad starts with a shot of the top of the General Motors headquarters building in Detroit. And you hear this recognizable voice from the Austin Powers movies.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dr. Evil: Ladies and gentlemen, our takeover of General Motors is complete.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Number Two: Dr. Evil. We can now use GM’s Ultium platform to power our whole operation.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Scott: Now we can reduce tailpipe emissions.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dr. Evil: I’m sorry. Am I no longer Dr. Evil? I’m Dr. Good now? I didn’t get the memo.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Scott: Climate change is arguably the number one threat to the world now.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Number Two: Dr. Evil, you are now the number two threat to the world.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dr. Evil: I refuse to be number two, Number Two.]
Sarah: Then, of course, we have Dr. Evil’s stern henchwoman, Frau Farbissina. She chimes in.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Frau Farbissina: [yells] You must help save the world first, then you can take over the world.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dr. Evil: Okay, Frau. How about you let me do the business, all right?]
Aaron: So this felt like the blockbuster ad of the Super Bowl. This was a glitzy throwback with some Hollywood star power in it.
Sarah: I thought it was pretty well done, frankly. I thought, you know, I …
Aaron: I know. I was like—I mean, it really worked on me. I’m, like, happy to see the Austin Powers crew and Frau Farbissina yelling and Scott disappointing his father.
Doug: It was like a soothing dose of nostalgia oil that your mom just puts, you know, on a teaspoon and gives it right to you.
Sarah: Yeah, especially if you’d been smoking up with Snoop Dogg. You’re feeling no pain at this point. [laughs]
Doug: We should probably talk about the theme of this ad, though, because we have—it’s Dr. Evil, right? Who wants to take over the world, but first he wants to save the world with electric vehicles. So we’ve gone from Dr. Evil to essentially Dr. Good.
Sarah: But it’s not that he wants to save the world. It’s that he realizes that he has to. It’s like a sad obligation for him.
Doug: Right. If there’s no world to take over because of climate change, like, you can’t be an evil mastermind in a hollowed out, burned down world.
Aaron: And to emphasize the vibe of it, immediately after the Super Bowl, GM tweeted out the following: “Climate change is everyone’s enemy. Let’s take it on together.”
Amy Westervelt: Oh God!
Aaron: It was like a hostage tweet. This was like, “Joe Biden’s making us tweet this shit.”
Amy Westervelt: Oh my God.
Aaron: But Amy, you also said that it reminded you a lot of propaganda that you’ve looked at.
Amy Westervelt: I was like, “Oh my God!” It was so—this ad was so interesting to me. First, I just felt like it was just, like, remarkably badly written. Like, the scripting was so bad. It was like, oh God, this is what happens whenever people try to integrate climate in this really, like, ham-fisted way. [laughs] But then on top of that, you know, GM is basically the ExxonMobil of the car space, in terms of both kind of a history of being a shitty corporate actor. I just recently was in an archive of the PR guy who was working with GM when they had to apologize publicly to Ralph Nader for, like, harassing him and having him followed back in the ’70s, you know?
Amy Westervelt: So, like, they’ve been at it for a long time. There’s a bunch of, like, sort of GM new stuff where there’s a climate scientist who was trying to warn GM way back when about the impact of CO2 emissions, and GM just sort of told her to shut up. So there’s like a whole history of that. But then also their whole approach is so similar, where it’s like now that they can no longer ignore climate change, it’s suddenly pivoted to “It’s not happening. It’s not a problem,” to “It’s all of our responsibility. We’re all in this together.” [laughs] You know? And also, “We’re gonna be your hero, and we’re on it so you guys don’t have to worry about it.” This is like the exact messaging that the oil majors have kind of pivoted to in the last 10 years or so. It was very weird to see it parroted almost verbatim by GM. Yeah, blech. I had—I had lots of, like, icky vibes on this ad. [laughs]
Aaron: I mean, one of the things that was really interesting about this ad, and maybe similar to what the oil companies are doing, you know, they talk about, well, you know, we can keep being oil companies because we’re giving you carbon capture technology—which doesn’t really exist in any way that can be scaled. And GM is giving you this—you know, they feature these five EVs, these five electric vehicles at the end of the ad. And as, you know, Andrew Hawkins, a journalist that we’ve had on the podcast a few times pointed out after the Super Bowl, only one of those EVs in the ad is actually available to buy right now. And if you look closely at the ad, these are—they’re illustrations. They’re not actual—I’m pretty sure they’re just, like, Photoshopped.
Amy Westervelt: They’re renderings? Yeah.
Aaron: Adobe Illustrator. They’re rendered.
Amy Westervelt: Wow.
Aaron: Yeah, they’re not real cars. They don’t exist. Only one of those cars is even on the market this year.
Amy Westervelt: Classic. Yeah.
Aaron: There was something kind of off, like, this sort of tacit admission of just straight up changing the GM logo to a picture of Dr. Evil.
Aaron: It was just kind of like, “Okay.” And, you know, like, Dr. Evil sitting in the corporate boardroom in the tower sort of admitting, like, “Guys, we’ve gotta stop being evil.”
Amy Westervelt: Yes! Yeah. Well, and it’s just that, like—I don’t know, there’s just this sort of persistent thing of, like, don’t worry, the companies that created the problem also have the solution for you, so you guys don’t have to—you know, don’t trouble yourselves. I mean, this is very, like, classic “We don’t need regulation” type of messaging in these ads. Like, I don’t know. In the same way that I don’t think that ExxonMobil is, like, who we want in charge of the energy transition, GM is not who we want figuring out transportation emissions. [laughs]
Doug: The other thing I would say about these ads, and this is something that we as advocates in the war on cars come up against, is that there’s a myth that the only problem with cars is what comes out of the tailpipe, and if you solve that problem, you’ve solved all the problems with cars. And these are giant trucks. You know, the Hummer, the Silverado, these are kid killers, man. These—we have a pedestrian safety crisis in this country and they’re just like, “Oh, who cares? Like, it’s clean. You’ll get run over, but at least you’ll be saving the environment.”
Amy Westervelt: I mean, there’s the whole other issue, too that, like—so this was just like a very on-the-nose experience I had a couple months ago. I was in Minnesota at one of the Line 3 resistance camps, and all of the activists there were packing up and heading out west to the next big protest, which was a lithium mine in Nevada, you know? And I think of it like the idea that we need giant EVs is just so wrong-headed, and it’s so totally what you get when you think about the climate crisis as only being about emissions, and about sort of swapping in one power source for another.
Amy Westervelt: Do we really want to be mining for the minerals required for these massive batteries? And do we really want massive amounts of steel and plastic and all of the other things that go into cars, or the emissions related to manufacturing those cars? Or—you know, like, I just I feel like there’s this way that people very neatly sidestep all of the extraction required to make an EV, you know? Much less these, like, enormous ones. Why are they all enormous? I don’t get it.
Doug: Okay, so most car ads are about convincing you to buy a car. Our next ad is one that tells you how much better your life is gonna be if you sell your car. We see a woman walking down an urban street. She is looking at her phone.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: I’m finally gonna sell my car.]
Doug: She is looking at a “For Sale” sign on a car.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, dancer #1: Was the buyer respectful?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, dancer #2: Was he nice?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: [singing] Well, we haggled over price.]
Doug: And then suddenly, boom! Huge musical theater number with dozens of dancers.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, woman: He backed out.]
Doug: So the company here is called Vroom. They help you sell your car online. And this 30-second ad is called “Flake: The Musical.” It was shot in downtown LA over three months. 47 actors, it was choreographed and directed by Mandy Moore, who choreographed La La Land, the big movie that won an Oscar. What did we think of this one?
Aaron: I think this should be like the theme song for The War on Cars.
Aaron: It’s like, I’m finally gonna sell my car.
Doug: [singing] I’m finally gonna sell my car.
Aaron: Great! Everything’s better.
Doug: Yeah. Amy, what did you think of this ad?
Amy Westervelt: I thought it was super interesting. Just because it did, it seemed like the reality that this—actually, this was the only one that I was like, “I kind of want to live in that future where it’s like, you know, it’s like a bunch of people in the street. There’s a huge community. Everybody is like, I don’t know, getting rid of stuff instead of acquiring new things.”
Sarah: And talking about respect, right?
Aaron: And there’s, like, street trees and cafe tables and lots of people out.
Amy Westervelt: It’s colorful. There’s, like, music. People are dancing. Yeah, it was—I was like, “Okay. Yes.” [laughs]
Aaron: Okay, folks. From all of us here at Rad Power Bikes Studio, that’s it for this year’s War on Cars/Rad Power Bikes Super Bowl Car Ad Kickoff Special!
Sarah: Aw, stop. Aaron, can you just—can you just …?
Aaron: [quietly] Brought to—brought to you by Rad Power Bikes?
Sarah: Yeah, that’s better. [laughs]
Aaron: Okay. That’s it for our Super Bowl special ’til next year. Amy Westervelt, thank you so much for joining us. It was great to have you.
Amy Westervelt: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Sarah: Remember, if you want to support The War on Cars, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and join today. Starting at just $3 a month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content and other rewards.
Doug: As always, we want to thank our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, James Doyle and Martin Mignot.
Aaron: Go to RadPowerBikes.com and use promo code “citysave” for a $100 discount on their classic Rad City e-bikes. Offer ends February 27, or as long as supplies last.
Sarah: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. I’m Sarah Goodyear.
Doug: I’m Doug Gordon.
Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek, and this is the Rad Power Bikes/War on Cars Super Bowl …
Sarah: [laughs] That was good.