How to market an electric car in America: Bash urbanism, walking, and the French.

EV in front of house
Video screen capture Youtube/ Cadillac

We have an ongoing debate around the water cooler at TreeHugger HQ about electric cars; I tend to agree with Alex Steffen that "the answer to the problem of the American car is not under the hood, and we're not going to find a bright green future by looking there." Others, like TreeHugger Mike, believe that the car is going to be around for a long time and that the most important thing is to get off fossil fuels, and that the transition to the electric car is a big part of that, and that we need a multifaceted approach. Or as Zach put it, It’s Not “This Or That” — It’s “This And That”. They have a point.

Then, while watching the Academy Awards, I saw this ad for the Cadillac ELR (originally shown during the Olympics) and wanted to get on my bike and gather a critical mass of other cyclists and go occupy the nearest Cadillac dealer. The smarmy one percenter who is the owner of this vehicle lives in a big modern house (quite tasteful actually) and gets his exercise walking through it, while in the rest of the world,

Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stroll by the café, they take August off. Off. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy hard-working driven believers, that's why. Those other countries think we're nuts. Whatever.

Not just other countries think he's nuts, but other Americans too. There are urbanists walking among us who think that being able to stroll home, stop at a café and talk to people and be part of a community is the real future of a green society; to quote Alex Steffen again,

There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

That means more cafés and places to stroll and more people doing it.

Youtube/ in kitchen/Video screen capture

And indeed, the ad reinforces my view that an electric car doesn't change things much at all, it's just another way for rich people to get from their offices to their monster houses in splendid leather lined isolation. Cadillac is skillfully marketing its car to rich smug arrogant xenophobes, which I suppose is appropriate for a $75,000 reskinned Chevy Volt. Attacking the French is always good business; as Sarah Goodyear notes in the Atlantic Cities,

The ad is a shrewdly self-aware, beautifully produced entry in a tradition of French-bashing that goes back to Shakespearian times and has been revived repeatedly by U.S. politicians who want to make sure their constituents understand the dark side of croissants and universal, humane health care. Luxury electric vehicles may be a novelty, but disdaining the French for enjoying life too much? Plus ça change.

On the other hand, electric or conventional, Cadillac could find itself Hummered, turned into a symbol of wretched excess that nobody wants to be associated with. Tough call.

Tags: Actors | Advertising | Electric Cars | Electric Vehicles | Urban Life