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Great (But Frustrating) Commercials: Nissan Leaf

I almost never watch commercials anymore. Most of my video is of the streaming variety, either through Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, or YouTube. When I do take advantage of broadcast or cable TV, it's usually captured on my Tivo, where I can fast-forward through commercials. On the rare occasion when I'm watching live TV (usually sports), I'm often with friends and don't pay much attention to commercial blather. In the vanishingly rare cases when I'm watching live TV and aren't talking during the commercials, I'm usually mentally tuned out because most commercials are either obvious or annoying or both. This explains why, in true Car Lust style, I just recently viewed and am just now writing up an advertisement that originally aired three months ago.

Over the weekend, this Nissan Leaf commercial caught me in one of those few moments when both my television and my brain were tuned in, and I thought it was stunningly well-executed. It was frustrating, for reasons I'll get into after the video and the jump, but very well-done.

First of all, as a piece of advertising, this ad is extraordinary. Its simple and elegant message, portraying how disconcerting and gross a world powered exclusively by gasoline would be, results in an interesting visual that pushes all the right visceral buttons. I wouldn't be at all surprised if future generations think about the idea of hundreds of millions of carbon monoxide-powered cars on the road with as much distaste as we'd look at a two-stroke dentist's drill. The visuals in this ad have the potential to do more to sway public opinion on electric cars than any amount of proselytizing by true believers.

Here are a few short thoughts on the ad, before I get to the real meat:

  • I actually thought the weathered gasoline-powered appliances looked generally pretty cool--like something out of Mad Max, or the steampunk movement. Who else here would love to have a computer with a throttle, if for no other reason than to floor it when the CPU starts to drag?
  • Was anybody else reminded of Jeremy Clarkson's bitchin' V-8 blender
  • If this world truly had no electricity, how did the smug Nissan Leaf guy charge up his car? Was the car drafted and designed on a series of gasoline-powered computers?
  • This alternate gasoline-powered reality might be a bit more compelling if all of their appliances weren't powered by dirty, poorly maintained, two-stroke engines.

My real frustration with the ad, though, is that it's a bit unfair. Yes, it's just an advertisement, and its job is to sell its point of view, but it's just so well-done and effective that I'm worried that people will accept its message verbatim.

There are a few small, niggling ways in which the ad is unfair. For example, while I'm a big proponent of the concept of electric cars, there are environmental complications involved with electric cars that (understandably) aren't depicted here. Today's electric cars and appliances do generate pollution, in the form of electricity generation. That generation may be more efficient because it's done in a bulk fashion, and it doesn't puff exhaust directly in your face, but it does still happen.

Today's gasoline-powered cars are also astonishingly efficient and clean when compared with their predecessors and in context of the work that they do--comparing them, however comedically, to smoke-belching two-stroke engines is doing today's gasoline engines a disservice. And finally, electric cars carry batteries, which are toxic and disruptive to create and dispose. An incredibly tone-deaf and overly defensive ad agency could create a response to the Nissan Leaf ad that shows everyday people having to step over discarded batteries and drinking polluted water from a site near a lithium mine.

All of these are trifling and nitpicky issues, particularly considering this is an advertisement, not a documentary. Of course it's going to paint its product in the best possible light and its competition (including the rest of Nissan's lineup, in this case) in the worst possible light.

My biggest problem with this ad's unfairness comes at 0:43, when we see the sad-sack protagonist at the filling station with his Chevy Volt while forlornly watching the Leaf guy drive away in his "100-percent electric, zero-gas" Nissan Leaf. This is an obvious attempt to pin the Volt with a Scarlet G, smearing it as one of those nasty gasoline-powered cars, inferior to the purity of the Leaf. That seems unfair and misleading.

If you want to drive purely on electricity, you can do that in a Volt just as easily as in a Leaf. Stay within the Volt's range radius, and it hums along as silently, cheerfully, and cleanly as the Leaf. The difference is that if you venture outside the Leaf's range, it leaves you stranded. If you venture outside the Volt's range, it won't. Try to drive the Leaf cross-country, and  you'll either be left stranded or forced to tip-toe your way between charging points. Try to drive the Volt cross-country, and you'll have no problem. You're not forced to use gasoline in the Volt; it's a perk that makes the Volt just as versatile as a conventional car. In my mind, this is what makes the Volt an incredibly interesting and compelling car.

To put this another way, deriding the Volt for having an auxiliary gasoline engine is exactly the same as deriding a homeowner for buying an emergency gas generator. It's not as if he's planning on running his house on the generator all the time--it's just there in case of emergency, and in those emergencies he'll have power and you won't.

Don't get me wrong; I think the Leaf is an exceptional commuter car, and I would happily use one for that purpose (though if I actually had $30K to spend, I'd likely buy six $5,000 cars instead). That Car Guy also seemed to like the Leaf in his preview earlier this year.

But ultimately, this has little to do with the Leaf as a car and much more to do with the Volt's portrayal here. The Volt's versatility is not a vice, and the Leaf's pure-electric design is not a virtue. Trying to argue otherwise felt like the only false note in an otherwise excellent advertisement.

--Chris H.

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Right on! An excellent column, and your logic is impeccable. I couldn't have said it better. I think that the Volt is a game-changer kind of car for this country. I'm just waiting a year or two until they get production ramped up and the price down.

Great article! Did you know Renault also has basically the same ad too? I like it more though, it's point is "we switched to electricity for many things, why not for travel?" so it's not obnoxious!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKg-LPOXIMs

Yeah, I had the same problems with it. Seems to make the argument that electricity just magically appears out of the plug*, when for much of the country it's just a fancy way of running cars on coal. (which, if you start thinking about the costs of mining and loss through transmission, might not seem so efficient anyway) Like you, I did think the appliances were done very well, looking well-used and almost "normal".

* Another Top Gear reference! Jeremy asked Boris Johnson where the electricity to run electric cars comes from and Johnson just says "From the plug." Heh.

Until batteries become a lot more efficient, and charging becomes a lot faster, the electric car is going to remain a creature of very limited utility. The Volt's ability to run on gasoline after the battery runs out is a feature, not a bug--though the Volt is still at a major cost-efficiency disadvantage compared to the Cruze Eco (same basic car, about the same mileage, a helluva lot cheaper).

To be fair, 80 mile plus range is great for over 80% of the population... regardless if we have to charge at home or over night at some facility (I am sure those are coming soon). Not everyone "needs" 100+ miles... they can rent a car for those "special occasions". 30 mile commutes with stops in between... electric serves us extremely well in terms of "most" of the populous.

I know a guy near my home. Like me, her drives under 2000 miles per year. he has solar so he just gets 100% of his car's electric fuel from the top of his roof. No doubt in anyone's mind, pollution of batteries or not, he is polluting less than anyone driving a gas car the same miles... no doubt at all.

However, financially? Nah. I have my 87 45 mpg Sprint Turbo. Fill it on average every 2 months for $28. Much better deal than 30 grand.

It is for sale, by the way. Getting old having to start it every week for 15-20 minutes while I grease up the chain on my bike.

I want more emphasis on affordable kits for existing cars that have ran on combustion motors. Why no t re-use the chassis of cars already around?

One ay the 16v GTI in the garage (also a "start every week for 15 min car") will receive an electric transplant.. or I might get the point of selling it (I doubt it)

I was at the annual car show sponsored by the all-make old car club. In addition to the beautiful 1902 Baker elctric that is there every year, they had a late model Porsche 911 and Subaru Forester converted to electric. Interesting, but IMHO, the builder was a bit of a jerk, I overheard several outlandish partisan political comments.

Anyway, there was also a new Leaf displayed by a dealer....sticker was $34,000 for a car without any options.
I haven't shopped compacts in awhile, but I'd guess you would spend less than $20K (maybe $25 at most) for a similarly-sized non electric car.

I recently saw a Volt in a Home Depot parking lot. This was the forst time I have seen the car outside of a carshow and in a natural environment. The first thing that struck me is that is seems to be a fantastically packaged vehicle. It has an agressive stance, looks roomy and the fit/finish were superb. While $34K is a bit steep for my tastes, if the costs come down then I would be interested in it.

My basic problem with the Leaf (again a well-appointed and executed vehicle) is the battery technology. I know that many before me have beat this drum before, but 100 miles is highly optimistic and even a 40 mile commute( not inconceivable in the DC/NOva region) in bad weather (think extreme cold.heat) will take a toll on the range. Until the infrastructure is ready to accept more electric vehilces, I will pass for now.

first-sp

TOTALLY right on, Chris.

I read an article in Car and Driver a few years ago saying that electric cars can only be more green than gas cars if the electric plant's power source is green too. (Wind, hydro or solar.) One reason for this is the loss of power between the plant and the electrical outlet.

AND until electric cars become more mainstream, I'm with you about wanting 6 $5,000 cars instead. Or just one decent $10,000 car. Like a green used Prius.

Just to clarify, the major issue I have here is the way the Volt's gasoline engine is portrayed. That's just unfair and misleading.

I think it's an important point that electric cars are only as zero-emissions as powerplants allow them to be, but given economies of scale in power production and the fact that it's an advertisement, I'm willing to concede that my point there is a bit nitpicky.

You are correct in saying that the electric car batteries are hazardous waste, but the same can be said the lead-acid batteries in every vehicle made for the last 100 years.

Despite sub $100 price tags for 12v car batteries, a VERY high percentage of lead acid batteries are recycled. The price of Lithium batteries and the need for lithium to make new batteries should guarantee almost 100% recycling programs.

I don't buy the argument against EV's on this basis alone.

Ever drive one? They are great to drive. It's like going from dial-up to broadband, you never want to go back. EV's are smooth, quiet and accelerate briskly. Going back to a gas powered vehicle feels like a step back, which of course it is.

"Going back to a gas powered vehicle feels like a step back, which of course it is."

Au contraire. Electric vehicles have been around nearly as long as internal combustion ones, perhaps longer. Electrics outsold them for a while as well, until their inherent limitations -- range, recharge time -- relegated them to niche products (e.g., http://www.carlustblog.com/2010/01/ev1.html). Otherwise, their advantages in continuous torque and smooth operation are well accepted. They may finally be breaking into wider acceptability but that, IMO, remains to be seen.

Anthony is right. This battle was decided over one hundred years ago, in favor of IC powered vehicles. Only subversive political agendas have brought back an inferior technology. Doubt it? Look at natural gas. It went from being the green solution to being vilified in prime time television plots as soon as it turned out to be a real and substantial source of energy. Green solutions are the ones that don't work. If they don't make energy more scarce and expensive, then they won't lower our standards of living and keep the working classes in the tenements they belong in.

It really would be an attitude shift on many levels. Our need for now, immediate gratification, regardless of the consequences... that is part of the problem.

As mentioned, while electric may not be the solution in every situation it could work quite well for a great deal of the populous for 90% of their needs. Just rent a gas car 3 times a yr for big trips. 80+ miles is a lot of driving in one day, more than a lot of people do. Plenty before hooking the car up before nigh night time.

The range anxiety is not real for enough people to make this a logical option for most drivers, just not all of them.

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