Ford revealed today that it was behind a successful campaign to get a pickup truck emoji shortlisted for next year’s wave of new characters. It’s a reasonable addition to the long list of emoji currently available to us — pickups represent a growing portion of US auto sales — but its development comes with an important caveat: Ford didn’t disclose that it was behind the proposal to make the new emoji, according to The Atlantic.
The pickup truck emoji stands to benefit Ford in particular, since it’s the market leader in the category. Pickups are more profitable for automakers, too, so there’s incentive to push consumers toward them. Ford made a commercial, narrated by Bryan Cranston, touting its achievement in creating the emoji.
Ford’s involvement wasn’t stated in the emoji’s proposal, which was filed under the name of someone from a marketing firm that works with Ford. The proposal references Ford and other automakers, and even includes a photo of a competitor’s truck. In a statement, Ford said the marketing firm’s employee was named “to provide proper credit to their creative design team.” The marketing firm, Blue State, is not listed in the proposal either.
The Unicode Consortium, which oversees emoji development, seemed annoyed, but not entirely troubled, by Ford’s announcement. Jennifer Lee, vice chair of the emoji subcommittee, told The Atlantic that Ford’s involvement “probably should have been disclosed,” but that it was a “solid proposal” nonetheless.
While the consortium has given an initial approval to the emoji, the pickup’s inclusion in the next batch of characters isn’t final. The group will decide early next year which emoji will actually get added to our phones — most make it through, but some do get cut. Since Ford is revealing its involvement now, the consortium can take the disclosure into consideration should it be unhappy about getting used for a marketing campaign. (Ford’s ad notes that the emoji will be available soon, “hopefully.”)
And though the mock-up of the pickup truck emoji looks distinctly like a Ford truck, that won’t necessarily be the case if the emoji were to hit our phones. Each company has to develop its own version of every emoji character, and that mock-up is just meant to guide them for consistency. That means the pickups will likely all face left, and they may tend to be blue. But exact designs would vary, making the images more generic.
Brands have a history of using public submission processes to their advantage, only to see it backfire on them when consumers find out. Burger King once edited Wikipedia in order to build an ad into its page for the Whopper, but was quickly shut down. The North Face also edited Wikipedia to work its products and logo into images around the site. Both situations ended with a criticism of the companies for secretly using the site for advertising.
Emoji have also been seen as a relatively open forum that’s supportive of and responsive to consumer demand. Anyone can submit a proposal to Unicode and make their argument for inclusion — and in the past, it’s worked to get emoji that better represent diversity and accessibility. That’s not a process that looks great for a company to take advantage of, even if pickup trucks do fit in naturally with the existing emoji selection of cars, SUVs, taxis, tractors, ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, and racecars.