News & Blog - Auto & Mobility

Elon Musk’s SNL stint was a massive PR success before it even aired

By Brent Snavely, Senior Director

After all the hype and speculation about what he would say or do as host of Saturday Night Live, Elon Musk did, well, just fine – as a performer.

He certainly wasn’t great. He was stiff and scripted – even in a skit with his mother Maye – and had an odd habit of shifting his shoulders back and forth no matter what character he played.

But as NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans said, “The Tesla CEO did about as well as you would expect for a billionaire carmaker and tech entrepreneur who isn’t really an actor, comedian or professional performer.”

By any other measure, Musk’s appearance was a huge success.

More than 4.8 million households tuned in, making it tied for the third-highest telecast of the season, behind only the Nov. 7 Dave Chappelle-hosted episode and the Oct. 3 season premiere hosted by Chris Rock, according to Showbizz411.

That means Musk had a valuable opportunity to raise brand awareness for Tesla with an audience that doesn’t normally consider the brand. While Tesla is the clear market leader in sales of electric vehicles, the luxury manufacturer remains a challenger brand with only about 1.4% marketshare of U.S. new vehicle sales.

SNL also attracted advertising from four Tesla competitors. Lucid Motors, Ford, Volkswagen and Volvo all bought ad time to spotlight electric vehicles in an effort to steal some part of the spotlight.

Lucid, a startup that hasn’t yet sold any vehicles, was first out of the gate with an advertisement for the Lucid Air, an ultra-luxury vehicle that will have battery range of more than 500 miles. Ford came next with an ad for the Mustang Mach E, an electric crossover. As a result, the episode brought more mainstream exposure and attention to EVs.

SNL’s decision to select Musk as a host caused controversy and was debated endlessly on social media in the two weeks leading up to the episode. It also generated news coverage, commentary and analysis across all forms of media ahead of the show far beyond even the typical massive coverage Musk gets from automotive, technology and financial news outlets. Publications ranging from TMZ.com to The Atlantic wrote about plans for Musk’s appearance on SNL.

With all of that media coverage, it was clear Musk had already scored a massive public relations coup even before the episode even aired.

Musk, of course, is no stranger to controversy and often cultivates his image in ways previously unheard of for a CEO of an automaker. For years, he has been simultaneously combative with the automotive and financial media while also embracing and creating attention via Twitter.

Musk is regularly critical of media coverage and even eliminated Tesla’s PR department in 2020 – a decision that would be unimaginable for any other major automaker and was viewed as an industry first. It earned him a rebuke from the Public Relations Society of America, which said the move “sets an extraordinarily dangerous precedent for blocking the continued free flow of information from one of the world’s most innovative and influential companies.”

In 2018, he joked on Twitter that he was thinking about transforming Tesla into a private company – which prompted the U.S. Securities and Exchange commission to charge him with securities fraud.

Later that year, he smoked pot while appearing on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Both of these incidents would have severely damaged the image of any traditional CEO, but have only served to elevate Musk’s notoriety. Over and over again, Musk has been successful in business at Tesla and SpaceX, his rocket manufacturing and space exploration company, at least in part because he does what others don’t do and is willing to endure criticism.

SNL’s decision to bring Musk in to host its show attracted viewers because of that controversial track record. Millions tuned in to see if he would say or do something crazy, if he would outperform expectations, or if he would bomb.

But Musk did none of those things. Instead, he put in a solid performance that was awkward at times but effective enough to generate some laughs. In many of the skits Musk poked fun at himself.

At one point, the billionaire made light of his tendency to speak in a monotone voice, saying, “Don’t worry, I’m pretty good at running ‘human’ in emulation mode.”

Later, he said: “To anyone I’ve offended I just want to say, I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars on a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”

Musk is right. He’s not a normal CEO and his approach to public relations and communications isn’t normal or recommended – but it continues to pay off for him and, on Saturday, it paid off for SNL.

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