In between football plays on Super Bowl Sunday, Americans will watch a litany of commercials. Among them will be BMW’s ad promoting the new i3 electric vehicle (EV).
Entitled "Newfangled Idea," the commercial features a 1994 clip of The Today Show in which hosts Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric are on set trying to figure out what the “@“ symbol means. Around? About?
“What is internet, anyway?” says Gumbel. “What, do you write to it like mail?”
Flash forward twenty-one years and the hosts are sitting in BMW’s all-electric car, looking equally confused. “What is i3, anyway?” says Gumbel.
“Big ideas take a little getting used to,” reads the tag line.
The EV market reflects that. While the technology has come a long way in recent years, even with EVs getting longer ranges at lower costs, sales are still relatively low.
Arguably, a major problem has been ineffective consumer education. Primetime ads that reach millions of eyeballs could start to change how the general public perceives EVs and other types of clean technologies.
An average of 112.2 million viewers tuned in to the 2014 Super Bowl, making it the most-watched television program in U.S. history. Like BMW, the fossil fuel industry also wants to capitalize on that opportunity.
The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit open government group, reports that the American Petroleum Institute is spending $100,000 for a 30-second ad set to run in the Washington, D.C. area during the Super Bowl's halftime. The six-figure buy is the largest amount the trade group has spent on a single ad in a recent advertising campaign.
The "Energy Superpower" spot will champion hydraulic fracturing, which it says has made America the leading producer of natural gas and will soon make it the top producer of oil. Earlier this year, API also started running ads in the D.C. market promoting the Keystone XL pipeline.
API spent at least $73.5 million on advertising in 2012, the last year for which data is publicly available.
Battling misconceptions with humor
Ad spending by fossil fuel companies and interest groups dwarfs the amount invested by the cleantech sector. But while their budgets may be smaller, cleantech companies are trying to raise the profile of their technologies with an increasing number of strategically placed ads.
Google’s Nest, for instance, recently made a play for the primetime TV viewer with a commercial that first aired during Sunday Night Football.
Sunrun recently launched a new set of comedy-sketch-style commercials in California with ad agency BSSP, which enlisted the help of production company Gifted Youth, a division of Funny or Die. The ad pokes fun at the perception of solar owners as staunch environmentalists and instead focuses on savings.
“Even today, there are a lot of misconceptions about solar power: It's for hippies. It's for techies. It's for the wealthy. It’s complicated. So we figured the best way to debunk those myths was through a series of very natural, and very funny, conversations between two neighbors,” said Josh Leutz, creative director at BSSP. “If we can laugh at the misconceptions, and we can relate to those guys, we can relate to solar power.”
The Sunrun ads are part of a larger campaign that will include radio, billboards, online video, and display to build consumer awareness and drive leads.
At a recent smart grid conference in Washington, D.C., representatives from utilities, regulatory commissions and cleantech companies emphasized that customers need to know more about renewables and grid-edge products in order to see value in them.
“As an industry, we have not gotten information out to customers on what their options are,” said Chris King, global chief regulatory officer for smart grid solutions at Siemens. “I think we need to do a lot better job with that.”
Customers need to know they have a choice in their energy products, the same way they know they have a choice in cell-phone service providers, echoed Gregg Dixon, senior vice president of marketing and sales for EnerNOC.
Cleantech companies will be successful when their products and services are purchased by "Wal-Mart-shopping NASCAR fans," he added.