Media channels have had lots of fun this week chatting about a tweet by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The tweet, which promoted sales of red satin shorts for females with S3XY embossed on the back, was more than just a social media ad for merchandise — it was a shoutout to stock market traders who have decried the value of the Tesla brand and bet against the company (TSLA short sellers). Musk’s short shorts tweet was also a sophisticated advertising mechanism that drew upon many conventions of marketing language to appeal to certain audiences.
Not all of the marketing conventions incorporated into this short shorts campaign were admirable, however. Today’s cultural climate requires an awakening of racial and gender equity issues and asks us to seek out our “better angels” (a metaphor, first cited in Othello and later incorporated into Lincoln’s first inaugural address). In my opinion, it’s time for Tesla/Musk to transcend tendencies toward oversimplification of complex issues and to acknowledge the complexities within social media marketing and target audiences.
Tesla will make fabulous short shorts in radiant red satin with gold trim
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 2, 2020
Visual Analysis & Musk’s Short Shorts Tweet
The imagery in the Tesla online shop is a good starting place for looking at the way that advertising is all about persuasion. The first image on the site features the torso of a slender white female. We deduce the model is a female because we see a bit of long brunette hair, a flat stomach, some ribs, and a black sports bra. Her thighs are straight, her hips are about the same size width as her stomach, and her arms and head are missing from the photo.
Importantly, because all media messages are conscious constructions, the decapitation of the female model on the Tesla shopping site is quite important. The Telegraph, the New York Times, and other media channels and journals became concerned on the Headless Women of Hollywood a while back. “Hollywood has long been beset by accusations of sexism from the gender pay gap to sexist casting calls and scripts,” noted The Telegraph. The cited Tumblr curation, they continued, “shines a light on another way women in the film industry are discriminated against: by being decapitated.”
Jean Kilbourne, known for her groundbreaking documentary on images of women in the media, Killing Us Softly, describes how the subconscious messages in such body image–related advertisements create a “toxic cultural environment.” In a talk at Harvard, she said such advertisements become “a proxy for human relationships.”
In essence, by incorporating decapitation as an advertising trope, Musk/Tesla have reproduced objectification of the female body where thoughts and feelings — those most essential parts of being human — are cut out of sight, so that women become interchangeable. As a powerful model for lots of people around the world, is this the way Tesla wants to depict women? [Editor’s note: Reflecting on this, CleanTechnica has removed t-shirt adds we had on the site that hid the female model’s face.]
(Here’s a protocol that I use with my undergraduates to help them be methodical about deconstructing digital visual imagery like this.)
Introduction to Verbal Language Choices in Marketing
The Tesla online shop contains the following overview of the short shorts (since sold out).
“Description: Celebrate summer with Tesla Short Shorts. Run like the wind or entertain like Liberace with our red satin and gold trim design. Relax poolside or lounge indoors year-round with our limited-edition Tesla Short Shorts, featuring our signature Tesla logo in front with ‘S3XY’ across the back. Enjoy exceptional comfort from the closing bell.”
Graphics. Texts. Music. Sounds. All of these and more are multimodal communication tools that advertisers employ to construct messages, with the purpose of persuading consumers to endorse brand-associated products and services. Regardless of the techniques incorporated, the dialogue — shared communication through language choices — that a brand develops with customers is critical.
Let’s look at some of the ways that media channels have identified and even used particular words and phrases to relate meanings about Musk’s short shorts tweet.
Pointing to one of their own, CBS SF Bay Area relates that “San Francisco Bay Area tech guru Elon Musk always likes to push envelop (sic),” using the a bit of language manipulation themselves with the cliche “push the envelope” to describe Tesla’s marketplace disruptions.
News Corp Australia suggests that, “You could be forgiven for thinking it was an attempt at humour from the tech maverick, but now the item has appeared on the Tesla online shop. The shorts are likely to still be intended as a joke.” Clearly.
AdWeek points out that, when executed correctly, sprinkling a bit of comedy into marketing content “makes it more engaging and shareable.”
Fox Business identified how Musk used the tweet to take “a swipe” at short-sellers, unveiling his continued “dismay with investors who bet against his company.” Fox Business incorrectly added that, in 2018, Musk sent a box of short shorts to hedge fund manager David Einhorn; actually, it was apparel maker Chubbies that sent the shorts to Einhorn.
Allusions within Musk’s Short Shorts Tweet
The Saxon, out of the UK, digs a little bit more deeply than some other media outlets and describes how the cost of the short shorts is odd at first glance: $69.420. Tesla did not round up the price of the short shorts as is the general rule in merchandising. Instead, with the 3 digit cents allocation, Tesla/Musk symbolizes the $420 stock price proposed by Elon Musk for buying back company shares a couple of years ago and taking Tesla off of the stock market.
CleanTechnica editor Zach Shahan deconstructed the $420 buyout number in December, 2019, outlining how Musk set the price in his proposal to go private partially as a joke (because of its long association with smoking pot) and partially infused with logic based on current calculations. The time 4:20 pm is a popular cultural allusion to the socially accepted hour of the day to consume cannabis. There is debate about its origination.
Someone has also noticed that Elon Musk’s birthday comes 69 days after 4/20. We’ll come back to the first number in a moment.
In a subsequent tweet, Musk referred to a particular destination for some of the short shorts they’re having produced: the “Shortseller Enrichment Commission” (SEC). This was an allusion to a longstanding feud with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), which Musk has seen as unfairly targeting him and Tesla on behalf of TSLA short sellers. The two have had legal battles from Musk tweeting “funding secured” regarding privatization of Tesla, and later regarding additional tweets Musk sent following a plea bargain. Clearly, Musk has a long memory and is enjoying the company’s exceptional stock valuation.
Will send some to the Shortseller Enrichment Commission to comfort them through these difficult times
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 2, 2020
The Double Entendre & Musk’s Short Shorts Tweet
Warning: adult matters follow in this section.
The allusion to “69” as the dollar amount in the original cost of the shorts is a prepubescent reference to the sexual position in which two people align themselves so that each person’s mouth is near the other’s genitals, each performing oral sex on the other.
So, too, are the names of the all-electric cars in the Tesla catalog — the Models S, 3, X, and Y — or SEXY. The decision to name the newest battery-electric vehicle the Model Y completes an inside joke at Tesla. The Verge has decried the decision to group the Tesla catalog of vehicles in such a way, noting, “He can’t stop making an unnecessary joke about sex. And not just unnecessary, but inappropriate, considering Tesla’s factory has been labeled a ‘predator zone’ by its female employees.”
Ah, Elon, you are so puerile and so brilliant! And, sometimes, you’re not too savvy about equity issues.
Tesla is inspiring the world to shift to all-electric transportation. To continue to infuse mechanisms like this short shorts tweet that categorizes and objectifies females, associates sex with the all-electric experience, refers to consuming illegal drugs, and infuriates the SEC is ordinary bad business — it limits the company’s potential — in my opinion.
It’s time to remember that the era when women would laugh along at jokes at their own expense is long gone. Women are a necessary target audience for the Tesla brand of all-electric vehicles.
It’s time to stop positioning Teslas as toys for boys. Teslas are for everyone, regardless of gender.
It’s time to respect regulators, not antagonize them. We need to work alongside them to realize Tesla’s potential.
It’s time for Tesla to grow up in its approach to marketing, its vision for non-hegemonic Tesla consumers, and its interactions with necessary governing bodies. It’s time.