GM went all-in for this year’s Super Bowl, recruiting Mike Meyers, Seth Green, and other actors from the Austin Powers series for a spot that uses the iconic Dr. Evil character to talk about, of all things, electric vehicles and climate change. But GM’s long history of climate denial makes this ad painfully literal — and is a warning about how polluting companies are now trying to greenwash their own reputations.
The 1 minute and 30 second ad sets up the joke: Dr. Evil, the character explains, has taken over GM, his first step to then taking over the world. Unfortunately, climate change is now the world’s number one threat, Dr. Evil’s henchmen, Frau Farbissina and Number Two, and his son, Scott Evil, tell him. The premise of the ad is that Dr. Evil must “help save the world” before he can take over the world; he’ll do that by “reduc[ing] our carbon footprint” with GM’s new electric technologies. For the Super Bowl weekend, GM’s Twitter temporarily became Dr. Evil’s social media, posting a series of tweets from the character about EVs and climate change. On Monday morning, in response to a joke from “Dr. Evil” about donating “one million dollars” (get it) to fight climate change, CEO Mary Berra said on Twitter that the company would give an additional $US50 ($69) million to its Climate Equity Fund.
Watching the ad, I’m blown away at the irony of GM using a pretend supervillain to convince us that it’s out here doing good. Sure, GM has made big, public PR moves in recent years to show off the company’s climate commitments, and has promised to be “carbon neutral” (huh) by 2040 and produce only zero-emissions vehicles by 2040 or earlier. But GM has a long and gross history of propping up climate denial and delaying action. It is a very literal move on the company’s end to use Dr. Evil, when GM played a big role in getting us into this disaster in the first place.
Most recently, during the Trump administration, GM backed the then-president’s lengthy battle against California’s ability to set higher emissions standards for cars and trucks — a move that would have affected 13 other states that had also adopted California’s stricter requirements. This support set GM apart from competitors like Ford and Volkswagen, which separately agreed to work with California on the stricter standards. The company waited until after the 2020 election to withdraw its support for Trump and to say it would adhere to California’s higher standards.
GM’s battle against regulations that would be good for the climate has deep roots. In 2020, E&E News issued a bombshell report documenting how, in the 1960s, scientists first presented Ford and GM with research linking fossil fuels to climate change — and the company continued to lobby against climate action and prop up climate deniers for decades after this original research.
In the late 1990s, GM gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative think tanks known for pushing climate denial, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. During this time, GM was also a member of the Global Climate Coalition, an industry-led lobbying group dedicated to opposing greenhouse gas regulations.
Even before the company knew about the risks of climate change, they were fighting regulations that would have made their products safer. GM conspired with other automakers in the 1950s and 1960s to stall research that would have cleaned up tailpipe emissions that were poisoning the air in American cities. (“There is nothing we can say about events that happened one or two generations ago since they are irrelevant to the company’s positions and strategy today,” a GM spokesperson told E&E.) We’ve reached out to GM for comment on the irony of the new Dr. Evil ads and will update this article if we hear back.
Making a plan to sell only electric cars is much better for the climate than basing your business on gas-guzzlers that will be all but obsolete in a decade as the EV revolution picks up speed. But pushing EV Hummers the size of a living room that cost more than $US110,000 ($152,702) isn’t exactly a move to “save the world.” GM may want to paint itself as a committed, caring corporate actor, but the only reason it’s moving toward EVs — which, in themselves, are not synonymous with climate action — is because they’re good for the bottom line.
Corporations are shifting as it becomes clear that climate-friendly actions and products just make sense — especially from a marketing perspective. That’s all well and good, but we’re starting to see a lot of companies with sketchy histories around climate put all their marketing efforts into the green basket, which, in many cases, is an attempt to cover up the fact that they’re continuing to produce products that harm the planet. It’s a uniquely weird sign of the times that GM is now pretending to be a climate saint.
Can corporate Dr. Evils really change their stripes? We’ll have to watch and see.