Electric Cars and the Next Generation of Auto

Trends / Sustainability
Rebecca Rom-Frank
Apr 15, 2023
Cars have occupied a special place in American culture since the early 20th century, and since then, advertising has constructed a mythology of power, speed, and independence surrounding them. But the advent of electric vehicles portends a huge paradigm shift in the automotive industry—so shouldn’t the visual language and mythology of car culture shift, too?

Not soon enough, apparently. The electric vehicle ads which ran during this past Superbowl still relied on the familiar old tropes associated with gas‑guzzling and fossil fuels. For example, Jeep’s “Electric Boogie” ad showed the familiar fantasy of getting lost in nature, ending with a very fantastical fantasy of charging the EV on top of a mountain. And several of the ads—in particular, BMW’s “Zeus” ad, Kia’s “Binky Dad,” or RAM truck’s “Premature Electrification”—played on the idea that consumers need to be reassured that EVs are no less masculine than gas‑powered cars.

While these may be small steps towards reinventing outdated tropes, they don’t necessarily meet consumer desires. Data from Axios shows that the top barrier to EV adoption amongst American consumers isn’t the concern that the cars are less manly—it’s whether they’ll be able to find conveniently‑located charging stations.1 So while it’s tempting to perpetuate the myths of untamed masculinity and independence in EV ads, it makes more sense to demonstrate to consumers how (and who) they could benefit in reality. American car ads have long relied on constructing a fantasy around the car—but because electric vehicles themselves are still somewhat of a fantasy, EV brands would do well to reimagine the image of American car culture for the 21st century to align more with the values of innovation, technology, and sustainability.
Where are EV charging stations today?
Someday it would be nice to have EV charging stations on top of a mountain, but for now, the reality is more mundane. Currently, the most common charging places are at home (51%), but other locations like workplaces (16%), gas stations, and shopping destinations are quickly becoming more common. Despite most car commercials demonstrating their All‑Wheel Drive in snowy forests and long open roads, urban residents are more likely to buy EVs than people who live in suburban or rural areas. With guaranteed less distance between charging stations and the immediate impact of reduced emissions, it makes sense. Already, in the visuals most used by American car brands in 2022, EVs are more likely to be shown in urban settings than rural, even though rural settings are more popular settings for driving overall. So, there is an opportunity for auto brands to demonstrate how EVs fit in with city life now, and plenty of space to imagine vision of a sleek, community‑oriented, EV‑powered future city.
Who really thinks EVs are worth buying?
It’s unclear why many recent EV ads were focused on manhood, when the majority of current EV owners are already middle‑aged white men with high incomes. According to research by the Fuel Institute, current EV owners are 75% male, 87% white, and 53.6% aged 55+, as of 2020.2 And Tesla doesn’t even run ads, perhaps because the well‑known stubborn macho persona of its owner, as well as the high price tag, are enough. So as EV companies expect hybrid and electric vehicles to become more affordable to the masses, shouldn’t they be hedging their bets on broader demographics?

An analysis of the visuals most‑used by automotive brands at Getty Images shows that advertising still needs to catch up to reality when it comes to diversity, too. While the number of visuals showing Black people doubled since 2019, just 4% of visuals showed Latinx or Asian people, despite making up 18% and 7% of the US population, respectively. When we look at data measuring potential interest in owning EVs, the scales shift: Consumer Reports found that 52% of Asian Americans, 43% of Latinx people, 38% of Black people, and just 33% of white people would “definitely” or “seriously consider” purchasing or leasing an EV as their next car.3 Additionally, data from YouGov found that 40% of Americans interested in buying an EV or hybrid vehicle were aged 18‑34—and climate‑conscious younger generations were the most likely to say that they’d consider it.4 So already, when it comes to projecting a new image of what the EV can be, there is an opportunity to paint a more diverse picture of the next generation of EV owners.
Who is in the driver’s seat?
While car ads have generally become somewhat more inclusive over the years, there is still a gap in who is seen in the driver’s seat. Our visual analysis shows that men are 8% more likely to be seen in auto‑related visuals than women, and when a heterosexual nuclear family unit is shown, the man is driving 92% of the time—despite the fact that American women are slightly more likely than men to be licensed drivers. What’s more, less than 1% of all top visuals showed LGBTQ+ families or individuals driving, road‑tripping, or tailgating, and less than 1% of visuals show people with disabilities driving alone or with others.

Last year, Auto brands downloaded nearly three times as many visuals showing electric vehicles as they did in 2019. From 2021 to 2022, customer searches for “electric vehicle” rose +28%, but searches for “electric vehicle charging” and other similar terms rose +50%, indicating that the next wave of EV imagery will focus even more on the practicality of keeping vehicles going. So, this is a good time for the auto industry to regroup to come up with a visual strategy that makes sense for the next generation of EV adopters—a cohort which wants to see more reality, authenticity, and inclusion in advertising.
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