While Super Bowl commercials are infamous for being the most expensive and most watched TV spots in the world, there might be a better media outlet for marketing new cars: the Olympics. While many of the commercials featured Olympic athletes skiing and skating by, there were two that gave a lot of time to luxury extended range electric vehicles: the 2014 Cadillac ELR and the 2015 BMW i8. And they were shown a lot more times than the single viewing you get on the Super Bowl (although the Olympics only happen every four years, or two years if you count the staggered schedule with summer and winter games). As for these Olympic TV commercials, my question would be: How good were they for marketing the cars?
The Cadillac ELR commercial plays off the competitive edge the US takes to the Olympics, and the upscale lifestyle lived by those driving the ELR – which is in direct competition with Tesla Model S and BMW i Series. “You work hard, create your own luck, and you’ve got to believe anything is possible,” well-recognized TV and movie actor Neal McDonough says as he unplugs his Cadillac ELR and takes off for the office. Americans don’t take the month of August off, like Europeans do, for vacation. “Because we’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that’s why.” Those other countries might think Americans are nuts, but we’ve had the Wright Brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul, and Muhammad Ali – and we landed on the moon first, he says.
While it’s watchable and humorous, it spends very little time onscreen with the plug-in coupe, which is a very lush and impressive car to experience visually and hands on; one would think the car should make up most of the commercial’s focus and not just a few seconds at the end. Yet the commercial is more about style and social commentary than marketing the Cadillac ELR. The production schedule for the ELR is limited and there were only 41 units sold in the US in January; but that’s more than the BMW i Series sold in the US – it’s still very early for the BMW i3 and i8.
I think the BMW commercial gets a little bit closer to hitting the mark. The “Hello Future” ad features a voice over from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1964 BBC presentation. The famous science fiction novelist (with 2001: A Space Odyssey among his books) says, “The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So, if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I will have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.”
Near the end of the commercial, the BMW i8 appears in the dark and then takes shape, with its raising “butterfly doors” (reminiscent of the upcoming Tesla Model X and its raising “falcon doors”). This car will sell for $136,000 and is supposed to have the same performance as a BMW 335i. So, the audience will be very limited, too. Leasing will be necessary – the price will come down but it’s still very steep. The Cadillac ELR starts at about $75,000 and is more competitive with the Tesla Model S, but it’s also limited in its audience size.
For automakers to turn profits on EVs, it has to be worth the investment and reach a level of scale that makes it competitive with some of their ICE models. These niched luxury extended range cars aren’t going in that direction; they do raise consumer interest in the new alternative powertrain, but they’re too pricy to assist in widespread adoption of EVs. They get federal tax and state incentives, but the price is still very high – even with good lease packages. There’s some public opinion out there that EVs are just a toy for a very small percentage of wealthy Americans, which can get in the way of mainstream acceptance.