July 17 is World Emoji Day, a fake but harmless holiday created by the founder of Emojipedia. To celebrate this year, Ford slyly revealed that it has succeeded in surreptitiously creating the pickup emoji. The company hired a marketing firm and a technology agency to pitch the Unicode Consortium of the pickup truck emoji concept. Unicode apparently did not know that Ford was behind the campaign. And next year, the pickup emoji (sponsored by Ford) should be coming to smartphones and computers around the world.
This is messed up, right? Well, in the grand scheme of things it’s not catastrophic, but there’s something deeply unappealing about the idea of corporations controlling the symbols on our keyboards. The Unicode Consortium is a non-profit organization founded in 1991 and tasked with creating and maintaining the standards that ensure text and symbols render properly across devices and various forms of software. It’s also the gatekeeper of emoji and has cultivated an appropriately open process through which people can propose new emoji. Ford, by way of a marketing agency and a digital strategist, will be one of the latest entities to succeed in doing so if Unicode signs off on the pickup truck emoji later this year.
The really gross thing about Ford’s involvement in the pickup truck emoji campaign is that it appears to have been a secret. Jennifer 8. Lee, the vice-chair of the Unicode emoji subcommittee, told The Atlantic that she did not know Ford was behind the pickup truck emoji when it was pitched. The proposal itself, which is available in full online, does not feature the Ford logo or any mention of Ford’s involvement. Nathan Maggio, a former creative director at the digital strategist Blue State, is listed as the author. (Maggio has since left the agency and is now working on Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.) Lee went on to say that Ford’s sponsorship “probably should have been disclosed.”
Well, Ford is disclosing it now. The company made a goofy video narrated by Bryan Cranston that remarks on the process of creating the pickup truck emoji. It’s goofy because Ford pretends it used clay and CAD software and normal car stuff to design a damn emoji—in secret. And when you see the life-size versions of the pickup truck emoji in the ad, it’s pretty apparent that it looks like a damn Ford Ranger.
Once you know that Ford bankrolled the campaign to create a pickup truck emoji, even the original proposal sounds suspect. The introduction to the document reads, “It is time for our global visual language to get a little bit tougher, with a brand new pickup truck emoji.” Emphasis sponsored by Ford.
None of this should be terribly shocking. As emoji have become a more integral part of how we communicate, brands have been dying to dominate up our attention with the cutesy symbols. Back in 2015, Durex petitioned the Unicode Consortium to release a condom emoji and built an ad campaign around the idea. Taco Bell rallied around a taco emoji the same year, and KitKat did the same for its candy bar. The big difference between those campaigns and Ford’s, of course, is that those brands sent out press releases and disclosed their involvement to the Unicode Consortium. As far as we know, Ford did not.
There’s a chance the pickup truck emoji won’t happen. That would be a shame for people, like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who loves pickup trucks and has been asking for a pickup truck emoji for years. (Ford’s hired hand even points to The Rock’s tweets about the issue in the official Unicode proposal.) But it also seems like it was only a matter of time before brands stole the innocence from emoji. Nothing is sacred in the 21st century, not even our smartphone fun.