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The Story Of The New Blue Pickup Truck Emoji

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You may not have noticed this on your computer or your cellphone yet, but among the latest batch of new emojis is an unassuming little blue pickup truck. The story of how that truck got onto our devices is a window into the big and sometimes dark money that companies spend to influence how we communicate. Here's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi with our daily economics podcast The Indicator.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: To hear the backstory of this particular emoji, I called up Eric Grenier, who heads up social media for the Ford Motor Company.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: 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.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: (Laughter).

GRENIER: And we started thinking to ourselves, there's got to be a pickup emoji.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But the Rock was not wrong. And his posts got enough people hot and bothered that Grenier 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 (laughter).

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Grenier hired an ad agency to figure out how to make that twinkle in the Rock's eye into a reality. And he thought that if the emoji could look like a Ford F-150, that would be its own form of ambient advertising. The agency got to work drafting a formal proposal for the mysterious organization vested with the power to decide which emoji ideas live and which ones die.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GRENIER: One of our truck leads calls it the emoji illuminati.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Its technical name - the Unicode Consortium, a Silicon Valley nonprofit which administers the library of emoji.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So is there an official policy about how money is supposed to influence or not influence the approval of emoji?

JENNIFER 8 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: Jennifer 8. Lee is a member of Unicode's Emoji Subcommittee, which vets proposals before they go to the final vote. And she says, at least in theory, the emoji proposal process is supposed to be meritocratic. They accept proposals from everyday people and give priority to ideas that demonstrate global demand. And Lee says when the pickup proposal reached the emoji illuminati, it looked like it was coming from an everyday truck lover.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEE: I remember being really struck by the quality and the statistics. It was just like a random guy - you know, some guy that just sort of, like, emailed in this proposal and, like...

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yeah.

LEE: We were like, maybe he's just a fan of pickup trucks. Like, who knows?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And no one really did know until...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GRENIER: July 17 of 2019, we announced to the world that we were behind the truck emoji.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for - the truck emoji.

(APPLAUSE)

BRYAN CRANSTON: You can't put a price on it because it's free.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Did you feel like Unicode had been kind of tricked by big truck?

LEE: There were no rules in place about disclosure. 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: Now, Jennifer 8. Lee says plenty of emojis have had corporate backing, from the taco emoji - lobbied for by Taco Bell - to the interracial couple emoji. That's a Tinder joint. But Lee says the way Ford subcontracted their proposal to a seeming truck lover without any clear link to the company has led her and others to call for more disclosure of corporate money in emoji.

Eric Grenier at Ford says the company did not intentionally obscure their role in gestating the pickup emoji. They simply didn't want to publicize it until it was a done deal. 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, we are more than open to a follow-up.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.