This was an old post I wrote in 2013.
Elon Musk is known and admired for a great many things, but in this post let’s focus on his casual usage of the phrase “gasoline car”. It might not seem like a big deal, but it’s really quite a cunning bit of marketing.
“Hold up,” you might be thinking. “How’s that marketing?” Well…
- Marketing is about the deliberate communication of value, intended to influence consumer decisions.
- Perceptions of value are very, very subjective. [link]
- Language affects perception. (The copywriting industry wouldn’t otherwise exist. A Diamond Is Forever. Think Different. Just Do It.)
The term “gasoline car” is a retronym.
Retro-what? A retronym is new name for an old thing. Let’s quickly go through some examples.
- “Acoustic guitar”. All guitars were acoustic until electric guitars were invented in, so there was never a need to say “acoustic guitar”.
- “Analog camera”. These were just “cameras” until the digital varieties were invented. Some people now even call them “non-digital cameras”, or “manual” cameras.
- Watches used to be either wristwatches or pocketwatches. Now that nobody really uses pocketwatches anymore, the term wristwatch becomes unnecessary. We’ll assume it’s a wristwatch unless specified otherwise.
The introduction of a retronym normalizes the new.
It emphasizes the primitiveness of the status quo.
By deliberately using the term “gasoline cars” (instead of “everyday cars”, “regular cars” or “normal cars”), Musk is reminding everybody how primitive the internal combustion engine is. It’s like a safety razor salesman calling the old razors “cut-throat” just to emphasize the disparity in safety.
Note that actual difference in safety doesn’t matter nearly as much as the visceral imagery of nicking yourself in the neck with a cut-throat razor.
“Gasoline cars” create the imagery of soot, smoke, sputtering motors. Of course, it greatly helps Tesla’s case that the Model S achieved the best safety rating of any car ever tested. Without the latter, the term would just be smoke and mirrors. When you have real data, though, the smoke and mirrors can be used to powerful effect.
“The words that are used in any debate are at the heart of the story we tell ourselves.”
Here’s a relevant quote from a Seth Godin blogpost about language use in marketing (this was following the Janet Jackson superbowl incident, way back in 2005):
“So, the reporter from the LA Times started with this question, “Why do you think the cable TV people are using the Internet to fight the government’s attempts to expand their crackdown on broadcast indency to cable?”
That’s when you know which side has already won the debate. How can you be against indency? How can you argue against a crackdown? Would the question have been just as accurate if it had been, “Why do you think the cable TV people are using the Internet to fight the government’s assault on the first amendment as it tries to censor and control what adults choose to watch on paid TV in the privacy of their homes?”
It’s easy to assume that I’m just playing with words here. I’m not. The words that are used in any debate are at the heart of the story we tell ourselves.”
Change is good, but not at the expense of user-friendliness.
Is Tesla’s success all about “out with the old, in with the new”? No, it’s not that simple. While emphasizing that the status quo is actually primitive and archaic, Tesla also takes significant trouble to ensure that it’s easy for gasoline car drivers to transition to electric. Too much change can be disconcerting and unfamiliar.
Charging stations look and feel like gas stations. They don’t have to be! This is the same reason why automobiles were initially called horseless carriages- to help people be more comfortable with the transition, to feel like it’s a natural evolution of things rather than a drastic change.
The Model S has a “fake radiator” to make it look more “normal”. It isn’t just Tesla that does this. Chevy’s electric Spark has fake grilles, and so do other electric cars. These are called skeuomorphs. They’re styling features, like plastic wheel covers that simulate spokes or wings stuck on cars incapable of attaining speeds where they might become functional.
In the ecommerce world, we still use “shopping carts”. That’s an example of a functional skeuomorph. It allows online shoppers to smoothly and intuitively interface with ecommerce stores without having to confront new terminology.
The takeaway? Choose your words carefully.
Elon Musk said during one of his interviews that he “doesn’t care about marketing”. He simply focuses on building great products that people will get excited about. (Seth Godin would argue that this is actually the heart of marketing- to build something remarkable. That’s what a Purple Cow is.)
I would ignore what Musk says and pay attention to his actions, though. Claiming to eschew marketing is great marketing for a technocrat and for a company focused on being the cutting edge of an entire industry. Musk’s actions reveal a clear understanding of the power of performance, the cult of personality, how to make announcements, how to tantalize the press. He also happens to be a guy who’s known to read like crazy, and any person who reads extensively will have a natural sensitivity to the nuances of language. This makes a person a very natural marketer.
Which brings us back to the fundamentals: Marketing is the deliberate communication of value, intended to influence consumer decisions. The better you understand language (retronyms and the like), and the better you understand consumers and their needs, the better you’ll be able to earn their trust.
Some fun stuff:
Here are some great discussions on skeuomorphism. Enjoy!:
- SachaGreif.com – Flat Pixels
- Seth’s Blog Skeumorphs = Failure
- brandednoise.tumblr.com – Skeuomorphs in Design
Also, check out this now-humorous debate on terminology back in the 1890s. Language purists still do this to this day:
“Which is it to be? We observe that the London Times has lent the weight of its authority to the word “autocar,” which it now prints without the significant inverted commas but with a hyphen, “auto-car.” We believe that the vocable originated with a journal called the Hardwareman, which succeeded in obtaining the powerful support of the Engineer for its offspring. As for ourselves, being linguistic purists, we do not care for hybrid constructions–“auto” is Greek, while “car” is Latin and Celtic. At the same time, such clumsy phrases as “horseless carriages,” “mechanical road carriages,” and “self-propelled vehicles” are not meeting with general favour. Why not therefore adopt the philogically sound “motor-car,” which could be run into a single word, “motorcar”? “[“The Electrical Engineer,” Dec. 20, 1895]