Advertising Electric Cars: What To Make Of Leaf vs. Volt Spat?

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Nissan Leaf 'polar bear' ad

Nissan Leaf 'polar bear' ad

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For the first time in 80 years or so, major automakers are building and selling plug-in electric cars in the U.S.

How are they letting people know about their new cars? Advertising, of course.

Our colleague Richard Read looked at four electric-car TV ads, analyzing what made them work and what messages they tried to convey.

Gas bad, electrons good

Remarkably, three of the ads, from three different carmakers, conveyed identical messages: Gasoline is bad and dirty, electricity is clean and better...and wouldn't you want a car that plugged in rather than burning nasty, filthy petroleum?

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

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That theme, however, poses a bit of a problem for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt.

It's a plug-in car that also carries a gasoline-powered range extender to generate electricity on the fly during trips that exceed the 25- to 40-mile range of its battery pack.

The Volt, in other words, is a plug-in electric car that also burns gasoline. Which has led to some sharp words being exchanged between Nissan and Chevy, with their TV ads as proxies.

'More car than electric'

It started with Chevy, which launched the Volt with the tagline "It's more car than electric."

Some electric-car purists interpreted this as a slap at electric cars, saying that while maybe electric cars were OK, the Volt was better because it used gasoline too.

Certainly the "Anthem" ad below, first shown last autumn, says relatively little about electricity, and a lot about long road trips and the American values of spontaneity and freedom.

A couple of weeks ago, Nissan took off the gloves. It retired its famous polar bear spot, responding with a new ad, "Gas powered everything". It shows a Chevy Volt driver unhappily filling up the car at a gas station while a driver across the street unplugs his Leaf and drives happily away on electricity.

That commercial appears to have stung GM. The company's Rob Peterson was quoted in trade journal Automotive News calling the Nissan ad "entertaining" but both "misleading and damaging to the EV movement."

GM: Leaf a 'limited use vehicle'

Peterson noted in an e-mail that many buyers are "intrigued by pure electric cars," but suggested that "not many people are willing or have the means" to buy what he called a "limited use vehicle," presumably the Leaf, with its 70- to 100-mile range.

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

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And he described the hypothetical situation of "a Leaf driver who uses all of the battery power and is unable to get a recharge," who would then have to be rescued by a "gas-powered tow truck or rental car." The Volt, he noted, could simply continue on using its gasoline generator.

While all of that is accurate, it sounded a tad defensive.

For input on how to think about these competing visions of electric cars, we turned to Chelsea Sexton, longtime advocate and perceptive commentator on all things vehicular and electric.

OK with the jabs

"I generally like the feistiness each company displayed in their ads," she wrote. "After years of these guys being ashamed and apologetic about their electric cars, I'm thrilled to see them proud enough to market them with spirit."

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Enlarge Photo

"Within reason, I'm OK with the jabs, both in the advertising and in their comments to the media."

But then Sexton pivoted, turning on Nissan. Their latest ad "misleads the public about what the Volt (and plug-in hybrids in general) are," she said, "implying that it only runs on gasoline, or at least needs gas to run."

Confusing consumers?

Car buyers are still at the very earliest stages of learning about cars that plug in and run on electricity, she pointed out.

And Sexton worried that "confused consumers who think electric cars won't work for them--but who would consider a plug-in hybrid" could be misled by some of these ads into thinking that plug-in hybrids are just glorified gasoline cars, and not worth the added price.

So, she concluded, "I can see where the GM folks are frustrated right about now."

Sexton hastened to add that she doesn't agree with everything they say, "but I get how they got to the point" of having to say it.

Let the games continue.


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Comments (8)
  1. The airline industry has a long-standing policy of not discussing whether 3 engine planes are safer than 2 engine planes. While it might sound good to the airline with 3 engine planes to pick on their competitors with 2 engine planes, all it really does is get people nervous about flying.

    I worry that all the back and forth between the LEAF, VOLT, and plug-in Prius may just serve to scare the consumers and damage the whole EV business.

    I think it is better to explain the value proposition of EVs,E-REVs, plug-ins, etc to the customer and let them decide.

    EVs are cheaper than E-REVs but more limited

    E-REVs are more expensive, but are a one-car solution

    Plug-in Prius ... er, what is the benefit again?

  2. the Plug in Prius has the Benefits of a regular Prius, but it could be plugged in like the Volt and The Leaf. On the other hand, Toyota should build a Plug-in version of the Prius V

  3. I did the math on comparing a prius with a hyundai elantra. (with the car buying objective being to SAVE MONEY) it would take just a hair over 100 years for the prius to "break even" with the average driver. in other words you would have to put over 1.25 MILLION miles on a prius before it saves you ONE STINKING CENT.

    do the math and don't forget to include finance charges.

  4. Personally, I am delighted to have a choice of both an EV and an E-REV. I give GM a lot of credit for giving the marketplace this option. Furthermore, whether EVs or E-REVs become the dominant technology in the future, GM has shown great leadership here.

  5. Wow that just looks like its gonna be good. Wow.

  6. Comment disabled by moderators.

  7. I LOVE the plug in stuff. electricity is for all intents and purposes FREE compared to gasoline. I would go from spending $3200 a year in gasoline to spending about $600 a year in electricity and half of that would be paid for by my employer as I plug in at work (if I ever got an EV)

    a very small solar panel could EASILY 100% offset that small amount of electrical usage making the car FREE to use.

    the leaf is at least an honest effort by nissan so I applaud them for that. but lithium is simply NOT viable yet.

    too expensive with too short a lifespan. NIMH is where its at but GM made sure we can't use those.

    I would rather commit japanese ritual suicide than buy a volt. its an insult and slap in the face to america.

  8. The volt is a slap in the face to anyone with an inkling of history. its a big FU to the american people. its 100% possible to use OFF THE SHELF PARTS to make a 100+ mile range 4door mid size sedan with a battery pack that costs $4500 to replace and will last the average driver over 20-25 YEARS (250 to 300 thousand miles) for a total full retail price of less than $13,500. they flat our REFUSE TO and in fact GM went to extraordinary lengths to make sure NO ONE COULD DO SO EASILY over 10 years ago when they killed the electric car.

    so for them to make this $34,000 volt with a fraction of the range and a stinking gas motor is a flat out INSULT to the american people.

    I would not take a volt if you GAVE it to me.

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