A two-story house stands alone against a night sky. We’re watching from off in the distance, but the warm lights inside make it look cozy. Then a bolt of lightning shoots down from the sky. Thunder claps. The lights go out, plunging the home into darkness. Outside, a gray-haired man in a cowboy hat switches on a flashlight and stands next to his vintage pickup truck, surveying the property. Something is coming down the road. It’s another pickup truck. Close-up on the grille: It’s a Ford.
A firm, masculine voice starts narrating. “Take the familiar and make it revolutionary.” A woman gets out of the Ford, runs a cord from the darkened house, plugs it into the side of her truck and voilà: The lights come back on. “Take the truck our parents used to build this country and make it so it can power our homes.”
Cut to a bustling urban bakery, where a different woman takes orders behind the counter, then heads out to make deliveries in an electric Ford van. Cut again, to a mid-20th-century auto-design lab. A designer in a tweedy jacket — most likely a reference to McKinley Thompson Jr., Ford’s first Black hire in that department — inspects a prototype of what appears to be a Ford Mustang. “Take the original 0-to-60 head-turner” — we see a new, electric Mustang zooming down a desert highway. “Give it zero vehicle emissions.”
This ad — titled “Make It Revolutionary” and directed by Chloé Zhao, of “Nomadland” fame — ends at the house where it began. Now the older man sits at a table with his wife, enjoying a meal with Electric Truck Woman and Bakery Woman (his daughters, it seems), plus a darling grandson. After dinner, he heads outside, where his daughter’s electric Ford is parked next to his classic model. We see them standing by the new truck, admiring its features. Old and new, gas and electric, male old-timer and female face of tomorrow stand comfortably side by side, the line of tradition running between them. “Take who we are and make it into where we’re going,” the narrator says. “Now there’s an idea.”
After decades of dragging their feet, big players in the American automotive industry are beginning to imagine a move away from vehicles built around fossil-fuel combustion. Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep have all announced plans to make 40 to 50 percent of their sales electric by 2030. This shift — currently a matter of nonbinding pledges — has many motivations: the plummeting price of batteries, increasing government subsidies, the anticipation of tighter emissions standards. As for ecological motivations, well, maybe; we can’t know what sense of planetary responsibility lurks in the relevant executives’ hearts. But automotive electrification is first and foremost a product of hard-nosed corporate interest in the bottom line.
Carmakers already know what makes customers spend. If their future is to be an electric one, then their mission is to convince people that electric Fords are basically the Fords they already love, only newer. This explains the mix of nostalgia and futurism in “Make It Revolutionary,” which hawks the cars of tomorrow using images of the cars of the past (which were themselves once the cars of tomorrow), all the while stressing age-old American themes of hard work, self-reliance and family. The result is a pitch for electric cars that dwells barely at all on what was once supposed to be their great virtue: the potential to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Emissions-consciousness isn’t what drew people to Fords in the past, so why change what works? Climate change is never mentioned — though the power failure that requires the truck to double as a generator certainly feels like a gesture at some of its effects.
In a news release announcing Zhao’s ad, Ford implied that she was hired in part because of her affinity for their product. (“She built a camper van out of a Ford Transit and often travels and works from it.”) But I can’t help thinking that “Nomadland,” Zhao’s film about Amazon warehouse employees and others on the margins of the economy, played a part too. In addition to winning dozens of awards, the film drew criticism for glossing over the working conditions in Amazon warehouses, taking a story of structural exploitation and turning it into a poignant veneration of hard work and gritty individualism.
Advertisements have always told us that by buying one new product, we can improve our lives. Increasingly, though, they’re promising something different. Now they suggest we can buy our way to maintaining the lifestyle we already have, armed with products made from new materials (steel straws, hemp T-shirts) or redesigned so they don’t belch offensive exhaust (electric vehicles). The status quo, they promise, can stay — without so much ecological damage.
“Make It Revolutionary” joins this tradition and helps us to see its blind spots. It’s no accident that Zhao gives more screen time to pickups than any other car, even though Ford’s first electric pickup doesn’t go on sale until next spring. In America, the company’s F-series pickups have outsold every other vehicle, of any type, for 39 years running; pickups constitute around half of Ford’s total sales, and probably an even higher percentage of its profits. They are what Ford customers want. But that doesn’t mean they’re what customers should have. Pickups are, by most accountings, a menace. Compared with sedans, they’re more likely to hit pedestrians and more likely to injure or kill those they hit. (Ditto for S.U.V.s.) Even when powered by batteries, they will use more energy than electric sedans (energy that may still come from fossil fuels), and their larger batteries will use more scarce minerals and generate more chemical waste. A recent ad for the forthcoming electric GMC Hummer “supertruck” seemed to celebrate this outsized impact, featuring C.G.I. footage of a Hummer falling from the sky and smashing onto a city street, creating a huge crater.
Internal-combustion engines, like coal plants, single-use plastics and so much else, need to go away, on a timetable faster than any yet proposed by any American company. Increasingly, though, experts agree that this should just be the start — that any vision of an environmentally sustainable future will have to involve many fewer cars, and smaller cars, and a great deal less driving, period. Similar transformations can be expected across the economy, and in all our lives. Any future we can believe in will be desirable less for what it shares with the past and more for how it veers in new directions.
To get there, it will not be sufficient to simply replace our current purchases, and our current lives, with slightly more efficient ones. We will have to let many old habits slip away and replace them with new ones. This is, by definition, a revolutionary idea — just not one you’re likely to hear in a car commercial anytime soon.