UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: NPR.
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STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: And I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. And today on the show, we are talking about emoji. Stacey, are you an emoji user?
VANEK SMITH: I am a huge emoji user. I like the little screaming man. That's the one I use the most (laughter).
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Oh, yeah.
VANEK SMITH: What about you?
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The little chick newly emerging from the eggshell.
VANEK SMITH: Oh.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's my vibe.
VANEK SMITH: I think you have a better go-to emoji than I do (laughter).
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yeah. Everything is just, you know, always new.
VANEK SMITH: Everything's terrifying to me.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But today, we're going to be talking about a brand-new emoji that many people may not have noticed yet.
VANEK SMITH: Yes.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Ever since a few months ago, you will find a kind of unassuming little blue pickup truck.
VANEK SMITH: It kind of looks like a toy.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's right. And the story behind this little toy truck emoji is actually kind of a window into the big and sometimes, dare I say, dark money that companies are pushing around behind the scenes to shape our keyboards. To hear the backstory of this particular emoji, I went to the private company that actually pushed for it to become a thing. Any guesses, Stacey?
VANEK SMITH: Well, it's a little guy, so I don't know - like, Fiat or maybe, like, Tonka.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Good guess.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But it was actually the Ford Motor Company.
VANEK SMITH: Oh.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: To hear more, I spoke with Eric Grenier, who heads up their social media.
So where did this whole truck emoji idea begin?
ERIC GRENIER: We had been doing some work with Dwayne Johnson - you know, the Rock.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Oh, I know the Rock.
GRENIER: (Laughter) He had put out an Instagram post that said something - blah, blah, blah, insert nonexistent pickup truck emoji here.
GRENIER: And we started thinking to ourselves, that can't be true. There's got to be a pickup emoji. Turns out there's two camels but no pickup - and all kinds of other transportation, by the way.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The camel's one of the older forms.
GRENIER: It is, yeah. You know, the two are obviously the one-hump and the two-hump.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's like the single cab and the double cab of the Silk Road.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Pretty quickly, the Rock's posts had gotten enough people hot and bothered on social media over the lack of a pickup truck emoji that Eric just couldn't ignore it.
Would it be fair to say the Rock put you guys in kind of a hard place?
GRENIER: I guess the Rock did put us in a hard place, yes.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Eric and his team decided to enlist the services of an advertising agency to gauge market demand and figure out how many social media impressions it might drive for the company.
GRENIER: Once we did the math, we saw the attention and the mentions and the chatter that emojis get across all social platforms. We were like, we got to do this.
VANEK SMITH: So was Eric's idea that, like, you get a truck emoji on the keyboard and, like, truck sales go through the roof?
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The idea was that there'd be a kind of more nebulous return on investment.
VANEK SMITH: OK.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In the short term, it would appease, you know, the Rock's online emoji-hungry horde.
VANEK SMITH: You can't put a price on that.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And he knew that other companies had gotten press and social media buzz campaigning for high-profile emoji. But more importantly, Eric thought the emoji would confer a kind of iconic status to the pickup truck that it deserved. And if the emoji could look like a Ford F-150, that would be its own form of ambient advertising, kind of subtly linking the company with the basic idea of a truck.
VANEK SMITH: This emoji does not look anything like a Ford F-150 (laughter), Alexi.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Not everything went exactly according to plan. There are a few twists in this story, and they are coming right after the break.
VANEK SMITH: OK. So Alexi, you were talking to us about how Eric at Ford Motor Company was on a mission to make a truck emoji. Where did he start?
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Eric and his team enlist the help of this same ad agency to submit a formal emoji proposal. And as they all learned pretty quickly, there is this one mysterious organization vested with the power to decide which emoji ideas live and which ones die.
GRENIER: One of our truck leads calls it the emoji illuminati.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The name is a little less cool, but it's called the Unicode Consortium.
Would you describe yourself as, like, an emoji lobbyist or an emoji whisperer, or how do you tell people what you do?
JENNIFER 8 LEE: I'm an emoji activist, but I work within the system rather than agitating from outside the system.
VANEK SMITH: Jennifer 8. Lee is a member of Unicode's Emoji Subcommittee, which vets all emoji proposals before they are presented to the full voting members of the organization. And Unicode, she explains, is actually kind of just this nondescript nonprofit based in Silicon Valley. And it's made up of, like, programmers and techies.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Since it started 30 years ago, their main mission has been to turn the world's written languages into standardized computer codes to make sure that each character, including now emoji, would be universally compatible across devices all around the planet.
VANEK SMITH: Jenny says Unicode is a nonprofit. Still, she says, money does find its way into Unicode's emoji approval process in all kinds of ways. First and foremost, the full voting seats at Unicode, the final group that ultimately decides an emoji's fate - you can buy one of those seats for around $21,000 a year in membership fees. And those seats are dominated by Silicon Valley tech companies like Google and Apple and Netflix.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So is there an official policy about how money is supposed to influence or not influence the approval of emoji?
LEE: Nothing specific about money at this point. It does have money-adjacent issues. For example, there are no emoji for celebrities, deities, logos or brands.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And Jenny says that at least in theory, the emoji proposal process is supposed to be meritocratic. They accept proposals from everyday people, and they want to give priority to emoji ideas that demonstrate global demand and cultural relevance to vast swaths of the planet.
VANEK SMITH: It is not clear how explicitly all of this factored into the ad agency strategy to help Eric and Ford with their F-150 emoji dream. But by the time the proposal got to Jenny and the emoji illuminati, she says it looked like it was coming from just an everyday truck enthusiast.
LEE: I remember being really struck by the quality and the statistics and sort of, like, design. And kind of, like - it was just like a random guy - you know, some guy that just sort of, like, emailed in this proposal and, like...
LEE: We're like, maybe he's just a fan of pickup trucks. Like, who knows?
VANEK SMITH: And finally, after around a year in process, the pickup truck emoji reached one of the final stages before approval in the summer of 2019. And that is when Eric and his team at Ford decided it was time to come forward.
GRENIER: July 17 of 2019, we announced to the world that we were behind the truck emoji.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Eric's team released this slick truck commercial-style video announcement, narrated by Bryan Cranston, and sat back to watch the social media impressions roll in.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for - the truck emoji.
BRYAN CRANSTON: You can't put a price on it because it's free.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But, of course, you can put a price tag on hiring a marketing agency and shooting a TV commercial. And Eric says, in total, getting the emoji from being just a twinkle in the Rock's eye to a symbol on all of our devices cost the company north of $100,000.
VANEK SMITH: And despite the fact that the final version of the truck emoji was a bit more generic than Ford had been hoping, Eric says that from a marketing perspective, he thinks it was worth the money. The announcement made this big splash on social media and in the press.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Did you feel like Unicode had been kind of tricked by big truck?
LEE: There were no rules in place about disclosure. But it was the first one that really raised the issue of whether or not there should be disclosure about dark money behind emoji.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And yes, Jennifer 8. Lee says that plenty of emojis on your keyboard have had corporate backing. The taco emoji, for instance...
VANEK SMITH: Taco Bell lobbied really hard for that one to pass.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The interracial couple emoji...
VANEK SMITH: That was from Tinder.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hiking boots...
VANEK SMITH: Brought to you in part by Timberland.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The beaker and microbe emoji, popular this year...
VANEK SMITH: GE funded those.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Even the mosquito emoji - want to guess who pushed for that one?
VANEK SMITH: Was it, like, Off! - the repellent people?
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That would have been a good idea, but no.
VANEK SMITH: I think so.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation behind this one.
VANEK SMITH: But Jenny says the way that Ford kind of went about the process, kind of subcontracting their proposal to a seeming truck enthusiast at an ad agency without any clear link to the company - you know, that has led her and others to call for a change in the emoji proposal process - transparency.
LEE: What's really important is we want to know where that money generally is coming from.
VANEK SMITH: Eric Grenier at Ford Social Media says the company did not intentionally obscure its role in gestating the pickup emoji. It simply did not want to publicize it until it was basically a done deal.
HOROWITZ-GHAZI: At the time of publication, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has still not responded to multiple requests for comment. But if you do hear this, Mr. Rock, please get in touch. We can always do a follow-up.
VANEK SMITH: Call us.
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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: If you want to know more about where emoji come from, a new documentary called "The Emoji Story," produced by Jennifer 8. Lee, is now available online.
VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable, fact-checked by Sam Tsai (ph). THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.
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