More Tesla Advertising That Isn’t An Ad — A Media Literacy Analysis

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Tesla remains resolutely committed to unconventional marketing. The Palo Alto company says it doesn’t really advertise — and that’s part of its larger approach to do cars differently than has ever been done before. You’re not going to see Tesla promotional materials look like the kind of historic marketing campaigns long favored by other auto companies, which have relied on a select balance of radio, print, and television ads. So, when a Tesla YouTube video emerged on May 30, 2018, that appeared to be an example of Tesla advertising directed to a Taiwanese audience, some of us in the media literacy world were asking, “When is a video actually advertising?”

If a “video” is a visual multimedia narrative that combines a sequence of images to form a moving picture, then how is it different from a “commercial?” A video tends to be expository — it explains. A commercial is a form of advertising, which is an overt attempt to influence the buying behavior of humans by offering a persuasive consumption message about products or services that are available for purchase. Commercials tend to run in 15, 30, or 60 second segments. Videos? Any length, but a 1–3 minute length is typical.

But when is a video an ad? Does an ad need to have a third party paid distributor to make it an ad? Do fan videos count as ads? And how in the heck did Tesla figure out so far ahead of everybody else that YouTube would become one of the most viable and productive consumer marketing platforms? (Perhaps it is even the most productive consumer marketing platforms.)

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Broadcast Advertising vs. YouTube

Local television stations usually have an in-house production and marketing team that can write and produce advertisements for its clients. At the national level, slick ad agencies are charged with producing commercials from the brainstorming and design stages through to post-production editing. At either the local or the national level, commercials are an expensive cost-per-sales-ratio for automakers. And that doesn’t include the expenditure to air the commercial over broadcast channels which, depending on time of day/season/event tie-in, can run anywhere from $200 per slot to $5 million for a 30-second spot during the NFL Super Bowl.

YouTube can also run commercials, of course. That is a version of pay-per-view, and a typical YouTube video ad runs between $.10 and $.30 per view, depending on video quality, targeting, and overall goal. If an ad campaign has a $0.10 video view, the company will pay $1,000 for every 10,000 people who view their video ad.

Tesla presumably doesn’t pay YouTube anything to run such commercials, since the company is adamant it doesn’t pay for advertising. However, it surely paid more than a few dollars for the video to be produced, and it then put it on a platform where it would presumably be watched between other videos like a commercial — it comes across like a commercial.

Six days after the “Where Change Begins” Tesla YouTube video was published, nearly 50,000 people had viewed it. Tesla paid for the video production like any car company would pay for a commercial to be produced. At the end of it all, Tesla didn’t pay for it to run, but was it not a commercial/ad anyway?

Tesla and the Taiwanese Market

Tesla advertising

In 2016, Tesla entered the Taiwan market with a pop-up store at the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store’s A11 branch in Taipei’s Xinyi District. Tesla had already been accepting orders for its Model S sedans online and soon began developing its network of charging stations. The Taiwan headquarters of Tesla was inaugurated in August, 2017, in Taipei City. The Tesla Motors Club/ Taiwan fan interactive forum over these last two years has discussed import duty charges, Model S production and anticipated delivery dates, Model 3 availability, features not yet enabled in the Taiwanese market, and SuperCharger unveilings — basically, similar topics in genre and context that Tesla’s upper-middle class male global target audience everywhere discusses. (Note: Tesla doesn’t release information about sales per region, so we’re not exactly sure how robust the Tesla Taiwan sales market is, but it must interest the company if there’s a new video from there.)

What purposes does the new Tesla YouTube video aimed at the Taiwan market have? Let’s slow it down to cull out hints about target audiences and cultural messages.

The video is titled, “Where Change Begins.” Its subtitle is, “The Lo family from Taiwan is embracing the changes their Tesla has brought to their life.” It begins with a black screen punctuated quietly in the right bottom corner with the red Tesla logo (the logo is on each scene change from beginning to end of the video). “A few months ago…” the centered white text English narration starts, while the camera rolls over the lower hood of a Tesla. (Under the original narration is a changing series of Chinese letters, translating the English title.)

The scene shifts briefly to a band drumming, with musicians pounding as they march. “The Lo family became a Model X owner” flashes on the screen over another diffused glimpse of the Tesla. The first in a series of celebratory images of Taiwan’s culture follows, with teens in a choreographed, flag-waving dance with Taipei’s National Palace Museum in the background. “Bringing change to their lives” emerges on the screen, with tourists in fast motion who snap photos.

The Tesla is seen in full view now, parked in a suburb where single-family homes are low-slung and constructed of dark wood and glass. After a scene driving in traffic with the city swirled in mist, we see Mr. Lo hoisting his small female child into the air as she emerges from daycare. Now the language changes to Mandarin, with English subtitles. “We want to spend more time with each other everyday,” Mr. Lo’s streams in voiceover. “We want to drive around everywhere.”

The next scene shows the three Lo family members seated. “This is what it changed most in our life.” Mr. Lo adjusts a car seat and other children’s items in the rear-left passenger seat. Now Ms. Low speaks. “Our daugther (sic) likes riding that car. She always calls it ‘little flight car.'” Mr. Lo takes a conversational turn. “The doors open like this,” he says,  raising both arms and hands in the air in a flutter motion while a quick transition to the flags and drums again occurs. The next shot features the Model X with falcon-wing doors open in a park-like setting.

Tesla advertising
Image courtesy ESLInsider

The Model X drives by the palace, while the Lo family plays tourist now, too, walking on the tiled courtyard with the temple in the background. “I have never been so passionate about a brand,” we hear Mr. Lo’s voice, “because I think this car is the future. It is very smooth when driving on the road.” The sultry gray Model X zooms up highway lanes and under bridge ramps. “Especially when autopilot is on.” Now Mr. Lo is driving. “It’s very easy to operate and it makes you trust it.” He clenches his hands emphatically, back in the family’s living room.

A quick glimpse of phallic Taipei 101 (which was the tallest building in the world from 2004–2010 until the Burj in Dubai was opened) fades to Ms. Low, who is removing the smallest child from the Model X to join Mr. Low, who is ahead with the older child. “I’ve already sold my old fuel car. After you start driving Tesla, you won’t want to drive a fuel car anymore.” The older child turns and smiles to the camera. “That kind of experience is something I’ve never had in my life.” After spending time at a playground, the family reassembles in the Model X. “Safe — full of fun –” the baby smiles — “it’s one of our family members.”

The final scene is back at the palace, with the family laughing and grinning after having a good day out in their Tesla Model X. The Tesla logo fills the last frame.

Deconstructing “Where Change Begins”

Persuasion is common in all texts, at least to some degree, and it’s the overarching goal of marketing. “Where Change Begins” targets cultural sites in Taiwan with shots that infuse great pride in its citizens, like the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Taipei 101. Taiwan is a mixture of heavy urbanization, stunning natural scenery, and an array of spiritual and cultural sites. Heritage differentiates a location and promises a memorable experience, emanating from the existing unique features of a destination. In this video, Tesla sets a background of Taiwanese heritage and portrays it as a pride of the state. In doing so, Tesla communicates both tangible and intangible aspects of heritage in a nod of respect to its audience.

Associating Tesla with historical greatness imbues Tesla with historical greatness, a greatness that is all of a sudden tied to Taiwan. That unique greatness is emphasized by lines like “That kind of experience is something I’ve never had in my life” and “I have never been so passionate about a brand.”

Of several commonly-accepted advertising techniques, the “Plain Folks” approach makes it clear that regular, ordinary people will find a product or service to be of practical and good value. In “Where the Change Begins,” we encounter an appealing, upwardly mobile young family in Taiwan. We infer that both parents have careers, as children are in daycare. Any other Taiwanese couple with small children who aspires to rise in class would see themselves enacted in these happy, contented Lo family protagonists. The audience identifies with the Lo family, who project affirmative qualities of family, cultural respect, and Tesla ownership. The family’s endorsement of the Tesla’s safety and fun — to the point where the car is personified as one of our family members, “it’s one of our family members”  — imbues authority to the Tesla Model X. It evokes an emotional response, which stimulates the audience to positiveassociative attitudes and possibly even active buying behaviors. And why not? Owning a Tesla, according to Mr. Lo, is the “kind of experience… I’ve never had in my life.”

With the metaphor of “change” permeating the Tesla YouTube, the Lo family talks variously about how the Tesla gives them “more time” as they “drive around together.” Even the older child is enamored of the Tesla Model X, fascinated as are so many people of all ages by the falcon-wing doors. And change from the past via an “old fuel car” is explicit: “After you start driving Tesla, you won’t want to drive a fuel car anymore.” The zero-emissions transportation revolution is close at hand with the Tesla Model X, including a bit of extra protection from “Autopilot.”

As with so many people around the world, the Taiwan community has been slow to embrace electric vehicles. To help clean up the air, the government has been promoting the adoption of battery-powered electric vehicles, which produce no tailpipe emissions. According to Taiwan Business Topics, nearly all of the 500 EVs on Taiwan’s roads are Teslas. The slow adoption is at least partially due to the unrealized priority of the Taiwan’s EV governmental initiative to develop the necessary recharging infrastructure.

The Function of Video in the Era of Social Media

Tesla advertisingRenee Hobbs, professor of communications at URI and founder of the Media Education Lab, says, “All around the globe, the Internet and social media provide new opportunities for people to use the power of communication to meet their personal, economic, social and political goals.” Hobbs reminds us that, as early as the 1950s, Canadian philosopher and literary critic Marshall McLuhan began suggesting strategies for “reading advertising” to uncover how values messages were embedded in ads for toothpaste, deodorant, and food products. While global consumption rates have risen exponentially since McLuhan’s research, the marketing methods to capture an audience haven’t changed drastically. Now as then, companies strive to sway audiences that their products or services are the best and most desired among all available.

Because the brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than the printed word, visual media, including videos, are now used more and more to get messages across.

Instead of traditional advertising, Musk’s digital instincts led him to build a product that inspired consumers — and the press that try to capture those consumers — to advertise for him. They do the research and post on blogs. They comment, share their opinions about All That Is Tesla in what is nearly religious zealotry. And all of that worship-as-chatter is free of charge to Tesla. Sure, there are other costs for Tesla’s various marketing campaigns, including the expenditure to post promotional YouTube videos like “Where Change Begins.” But when you’re a visionary who builds products that others said couldn’t be done, marketing those innovative products in new and different ways doesn’t seem that unrealistic.

Tesla advertising


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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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