The Visual Rhetoric of the Most Influential Electric Vehicles from 2000- 2017 By laura gee

Dating back to Manifest Destiny, the open road narrative has been a quintessential element in American history. From the horse and buggy, to trains and railroads, to Ford's Model T, transportation technologies in the United States represent the very American ideals of freedom and independence; the freedom to go wherever you want, the independence to travel whenever you want. The open road narrative (and a few key innovators and technologies) catapulted automobiles into commercial accessibility and popularity throughout the 20th century. The most recent addition to the road vehicle family is the hybrid electric vehicle, and this project aims to analyze the visual rhetoric of the three most influential electric vehicles of the 21st century.

Although this project is only about the visual rhetoric of three of the most influential electric vehicles from 2000 to now (2017); the Toyota Prius, the Nissan Leaf, and the Tesla Model S, electric vehicles are not a new phenomena. Commercial popularity of electric vehicles, however, is a new phenomena. The first electric vehicle was invented in the late 1800’s, and EV’s faded in and out of popularity throughout the 20th century. Thomas Edison himself is quoted saying that “electric vehicles are the superior mode of transportation.” Yet EV’s didn’t truly take off in commercial popularity until the 21st century.

So, what happened during the early 20th century that brought electric vehicles back into American consciousness?

The Toyota Prius

At the dawn of the 21st century, Toyota released the world's first commercial hybrid electric vehicle in the U.S., the Toyota Prius. I'm going to be analyzing two important Prius artifacts: a TV commercial, and a print ad, both from the year 2000. The Prius is the most influential electric vehicle of the century for a few reasons:

  • It was the first EV that was both affordable and profitable for car maker to produce in mass quantities;
  • It was the first electric vehicle that was affordable for your average, every day consumers (unlike previous EV’s produced by Porsche, and GM);
  • It reintroduced and popularized the very idea of electric vehicles to the masses in the United States.

Let’s set the scene in the U.S. in the year 2000. The notorious oil embargo of the 1970’s has passed; leaving behind an interest in lowering U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and finding home grown fuel sources. The EPA is now thirty years old, the negative environmental impact of conventional automobiles is no longer this big, dirty, secret, and the idea of fuel efficiency has been brought to consumer consciousness.

So, how is Toyota to market their new hybrid to the American masses?

Visual Rhetorical Analysis

This commercial is from the year 2000, one of the first 1st generation Prius commercials. This year 2000 Prius commercial uses a few of Aristotle's rhetorical tools. The obvious is, of course, Aristotle’s pathos appeal. Toyota figured by now that trying to compete with the open road narrative of conventional vehicles in order to sell an electric vehicle would not work. Conventional vehicles at the time were faster, better looking, and more trusted than electric vehicles. With the Prius, Toyota sought to appeal to a new kind of American car consumer: those who value air quality and fuel efficiency. With this commercial, Toyota created the "save the world" narrative that is commonplace in EV marketing today, but was completely new for the auto industry at the time. This commercial evokes an emotional response by arguing that oil is dirty, and that the Prius can help push out dirty oil.

Toyota used a combination of pathos and ethos in order to persuade American consumers to buy the Prius. This commercial uses the pathos appeal to appeal to your emotions by saying “Oil is dirty, use less of it. Use less of it by driving a Toyota Prius.” AKA, “Drive a Prius, save the world!” This Prius commercial persuades the watcher by creating the emotional response, “Yes. I want to use less oil. I care about the environment. I want to drive a Prius!” The commercial uses ethos by including several other well known and successful Toyota vehicles, and ends with the familiar Toyota slogan “Get the feeling. TOYOTA.” Including familiar Toyota brand logos, cars, and slogans establishes ethos to viewers because it shows that the Prius is an addition to the reliable Toyota brand, so viewers should trust the new hybrid car. Branding buying the Prius as a feeling further pushes the pathos appeal by saying "If you buy a Prius, you will feel some type of way." Presumably the feeling will be good, like you're saving the world by chasing away oil rigs.

Toyota Prius Print Advertisement in National Geographic, circa 2000. Image from

Toyota used Aristotle's pathos and ethos appeals to persuade consumers in their print ads as well. This print ad for the Prius appeared in National Geographic in April 2000, before the Prius was commercially available. National Geographic has an audience of about 5 million subscribers in the U.S. alone, and regularly features spreads depicting beautiful images in nature from around the world. Toyota sought to tap into the emotions of those who wanted a cleaner solution for their car, without compromising the benefits of a conventional car, and featuring this ad in National Geographic was the perfect way to appeal to this audience. I would guess that the average National Geographic reader cares about air quality, fuel efficiency, and has the desire to combat oil companies as a means to fight climate change.

The only large text on the page “gasolectric?” juxtaposed with the text “electroline?” creates a visual figure of comparison for opposition. Phillips and McQuarrie (2006) argue that due to the richness of meaning operations, “the operation of comparison, whether directed at similarities or differences, is inherently richer than the operation of connection” (p. 120.) In visual figures of comparison for opposition, they state, “two elements are counterposed and the the consumer must identify ways these are both similar and different” (p. 121). In this Prius ad, the reader must identify the ways that “gasoline” and “electric” are both similar and different; introducing a new idea for automobiles entirely.

The differences between gasoline and electricity are the most obvious; they are two different mediums, their physical properties are different, and one is clean while one is dirty. The similarities are a bit more of a reach; they lie in the uses and functions of gasoline and electricity to humans. Gasoline and electricity are similar in that they are both major energy sources, and they both power crucial human technologies; automobiles, appliances, lights, heat, etc. By comparison for opposition, this ad juxtaposes the two “gasolectric” and “electroline” in order to make the reader think about the two in a new way entirely. This print ad introduces the idea that, with the Prius, an automobile can be powered by both gasoline and electricity.

Toyota sought to appeal to the emotions of Americans who wanted a clean solution for their car, without compromising the benefits of a conventional car. After a century of driving cars, it was evident that Americans were not willing to give up their cars for anything, let alone the environment. Was Toyota successful? I argue that yes, they were successful (in selling their Prius to said Americans, not in saving the world.) Utilizing the visual rhetorical tools pathos, ethos, and visual figures of comparison for opposition, Toyota successfully branded the country’s first hybrid electric vehicle. After it’s initial release in July 2000, Toyota sold as many Priuses as they could make, and there were 20,000 Priuses on the road by 2002. With the Prius, Toyota successfully appealed to Americans who wanted to drive a cleaner vehicle, as well as introducing a new value to the auto industry: the environment.

The environmental pathos appeal of EV’s proved to have staying power in the American auto industry. In 2004, there were 54,000 Priuses on the road. In 2005, that number doubled, with 108,000 Priuses on the road. The Prius is one of the most influential electric vehicles of the century because it brought back the very idea of EV's, and paved the way for other automakers to get into the EV game. And by the mid 2000’s, other automakers were catching on to the EV- hybrid trend.

Now that we’ve discussed the visual rhetoric of the Prius, who revived the idea of electric vehicles, what’s next in the visual rhetoric of the electric car story?

The Nissan LEAF

The Nissan LEAF is the next influential electric vehicle since 2000 that I will be analyzing. The LEAF is influential because it was the first commercially available, 100% electric, zero emissions, plug in electric vehicle in the U.S. The Prius was significant in re introducing and popularizing the idea of EV’s in the States; the LEAF is significant because it showed automakers that there is a profitable way to produce and sell all- electric vehicles, not just hybrids. Nissan had the advantage of tapping into an already developed EV consumer market, and largely stayed on par with the environmental pathos appeal.

In this 2011 super bowl commercial, instead of saying “save the world drive a LEAF,” Nissan gets a bit more specific, saying “save the polar bears drive a leaf!” The body of evidence (and scientific consensus) surrounding anthropogenic global warming has grown exponentially since the year 2000; Nissan uses the pathos appeal to appeal to viewers animal loving heartstrings, depicting an animal who lives in the habitat that is suffering from some of the worst visible effects of climate change.

In this commercial we follow the displaced polar bear, forced to move from its arctic habitat, and into human civilization. First swatting at a butterfly on train tracks, then growling at a semi truck on the highway, then into the city and drinking from a tiny puddle with a raccoon, and finally, into suburbia, where an upper class white man who has a Leaf in his driveway walks out of his home, and receives a hug from the large bear (which is significant because Polar Bears are the only animals who actively hunt humans).

Nissan sought to appeal to the emotions of Americans who wanted to own the first affordable, all electric, zero emissions electric vehicle. Were they successful? I would argue that yes, they were. The 2000 Toyota Prius sold 5,562 in its first year. The LEAF sold 9,674 in 2011, in its first year. The LEAF is currently on its way to becoming the first plug- in car to reach the 200,000 sales mark in the U.S. Since its release in 2011, Nissan has sold 100,241 LEAFS in the U.S., and while that is a small dent in the number of cars total sold in the U.S., the LEAF was a success for American consumers who were looking for an affordable, 100% electric, zero emissions car.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Enough about the successful environmental pathos appeal. I’m a conventional car lover and I will never ever own an electric car ever. They’re all the same; ugly, poor range, for tree huggers. But, I saved the best for last. The most recent boost to EV’s popularity is Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley start up company headed by the quirky yet genius Elon Musk.

Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S is the final most influential electric vehicle of the 21st century that I will be analyzing. Tesla completely revolutionized the visual rhetoric of electric vehicles when CEO Elon Musk announced that they would produce the world’s first all electric luxury car in 2006. Tesla did something different; they brought electric cars out of the narrow “save the world” and “save the polar bears” environmental pathos appeal; and showed the world that electric cars could be sexy. For the first time, Tesla made electric cars, and sustainability, sexy. The company sought to appeal to a different audience entirely; the wealthy, luxury/ sports loving car type of American.

Their first commercially available car, the Tesla Roadster, was named #2 on the best inventions of 2008 by Time Magazine. But due to logistical, financial, and safety reasons, the car was discontinued and is no longer manufactured by the company (and also why the Roadster doesn’t merit a spot in this project).

This brings us to the Model S, released in 2012, the world’s first premium electric sedan. This is the last, but not least, most influential electric vehicle since the year 2000. The Model S accelerates from 0 to 60 in under 5 seconds, can drive 265 miles per charge, and comes equipped with electric all wheel drive. The Model S is significant because it’s the first EV to provide the comfort and utility of a family sedan, while keeping the look, style, and speed of a sports car. These traits make the Model S appeal to an even wider audience than discussed before; in addition to the wealthy, luxury/ sports car loving American, the Model S appeals to the sustainable, technology loving, family oriented American.

As you can probably see by now, Tesla does things differently. And the visual rhetorical strategy of Tesla is no exception. Instead of putting out advertising content like Toyota and Nissan to draw customers in, Tesla does the opposite. They spend virtually no money on advertising and ad campaigns; the company puts out very little official content, which creates intrigue, and makes their customers come to them. Ethos is established by knowing the brand Tesla, or Elon Musk, and all of the innovative things going on at the company. Pathos is used by creating intrigue and excitement about the car; stemming from the occasional glimpse of a Model S on the road in action, or by seeing a picture, or fan made video on YouTube of the flashy looking car.

Tesla Model S. Screenshot from

I would argue that pathos is also established by the buying process of the Model S. Instead of following the traditional car dealership model, Tesla completely computerized the buying process.

Instead of going into a dealership and physically picking out your Model S, you get the to customize, browse, and buy your car from home. Labeled the “Design Studio” online, you have the option to choose and customize your paint, roof, wheels, and interior online, and feel like you’re designing your own sleek electric vehicle. The whole process adds to the pathos of buying a Tesla, and the customer feels even more enthused about their new car.

Bar at the bottom of the screen when buying a Tesla Model S.
Design Studio. Choosing the color your Tesla Model S.
Design Studio. Choosing the interior of your Tesla Model S.
Design Studio. Choosing your roof & wheels of your Tesla Model S.

So, was Tesla’s Model S successful for the wealthy, luxury/ sports car loving American, and the sustainable, technology loving, family oriented American?

I argue that yes, Tesla was successful in selling the Model S to their target audience of luxury car loving, and sustainable, technology loving Americans.

Tesla Model S U.S. Sales.

Here is a table of Tesla's Model S sales in the U.S. from Good Car Bad Car, a website that tracks auto sales data in the U.S. As you can see, since it's release in July 2012, the number of Model S's sold in the U.S. has largely increased. Tesla sold a total of 2,558 Model S's in 2012, with that number increasing to 18,195 Model S's sold in 2013, and more than doubling in 2016, with 54,100 Model S's sold.

The ethos of Tesla, and Elon Musk, in addition to the pathos the brand instills in its customers before, during, and after the buying of a Tesla Model S successfully branded the world's first premium electric sedan. With the Model S, Tesla successfully expanded their audience from luxury sports car lovers, to the sustainable, technology loving, family oriented American. In the context of the broader EV narrative, Tesla came in a completely revolutionized the visual rhetoric of electric vehicles. Tesla forced traditional EV automakers, who had been in the game much longer than them, to re brand their EV's to reach a wider audience, and to branch out the visual rhetorical strategies used to market EV's. An example of this change in marketing strategy can be seen in this 2016 Prius commercial, which aired during the Super Bowl. Toyota rebrands the traditional marketing strategy of the Prius; moving on from the environmental pathos appeal, and attempting to display that the Prius is "fast and furious," and not the wimpy, tree hugging hybrid that it has been for the past 17 years.


After over a century of driving cars, it still remains clear that Americans are not going to stop driving their cars for anything, let alone the environment. Toyota, Nissan, and Tesla all tapped into the desire of drivers who wanted a cleaner solution for their car, without compromising the benefits of a conventional car. Toyota effectively re-launched the electric vehicle movement in the United States, Nissan created the first affordable, all electric, zero emissions electric vehicle, and Tesla gave the EV brand a much needed upgrade.

Sales Trends of Hybrid Electric Vehicle models in the U.S. between 1999-2015. Data from
Monthly Plug-in Electric Vehicle (PEV) sales by model from December 2010 to December 2015. Data from

With the current increased need to make automobiles greener and more fuel efficient, the Toyota Prius, Nissan LEAF, and Tesla Model S are all slowly making strides to bring EV’s into mass popularity in the automobile market in the United States. These two charts from the Department of Energy show that the electric vehicle trend is on the rise, and that more models from different automakers become available each year. For their intended audiences: drivers who wanted a cleaner solution for their without compromising the benefits of a conventional car; drivers who wanted to own the first affordable, all electric, zero emissions electric vehicle; the wealthy, luxury sports car loving driver; and the sustainable, technology loving, family oriented driver, Toyota, Nissan, and Tesla all succeeded in their goal of appealing to their target audiences, and creating a market for electric vehicles in the United States.

Appendix A: Works Cited

Since this project is delivered in a digital format, I've inserted hyperlinks to all of the online sources used throughout the project, as well as in the captions for all images/ videos used. This way the sources are there if the reader wants to look at them, but I didn't have to interrupt the flow of the document with citing every source in APA format.

Sources not hyperlinked:

McQuarrie, E., Phillips, B. (2004). Beyond visual metaphor: a new typology of visual rhetoric in advertising. Marketing Theory. 4(1), 113-136. Retrieved from,_McQuarrie_retoryka.pdf

Created By
Laura Gee

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