• Sun. Nov 29th, 2020

The epic campaign to win Elon Musk’s Tesla factory with memes

Before an icon of the former oil capital of the world was turned into a literal idol of Elon Musk in May, Kurt Stenstrom needed someone to ride a cherry picker lift 70 feet in the air to measure the statue’s face. Built in 1966, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s apartment building-sized Golden Driller statue has been decorated frequently over the years to promote everything from new parks to rock n roll radio stations. But no one had ever decorated the face. So someone needed to measure it first.

Measurements secured, Stenstrom fired up Photoshop on his Mac mini. He tweaked a composite image of Musk’s face he’d created during an all-nighter the previous night. The lithography company he works for had just one more day to dress the Driller up like Musk before an event where Tulsa officials would announce their push to convince Tesla to build its new Cybertruck factory there, so Stenstrom needed to work fast.

The effort to woo Tesla would ultimately fail; the company will instead build the factory just outside of Austin, Texas. The decision simply came down to some of his key employees wanting to move there over Tulsa, Musk told Automotive News. It’s hard to imagine Tulsa ever really had a chance.

But according to the Tulsans who spent the last few months wooing Tesla, they made the company think twice and put an offer in front of Elon Musk that dwarfed what was proposed in Texas. And they wouldn’t have even been on the radar if it wasn’t for a series of viral, made-to-be-memed ideas like slapping Musk’s face and Tesla’s logo on the Golden Driller or spinning up a website advertising the “Big Fucking Field” that the city was pitching for development.

Governments embarrassing themselves to win big business is part of the price of, well, doing business. Remember all the cringey ways cities tried to convince Amazon they were the best option for its new headquarters?

But Musk loves memes. When it comes to internet-speak, other Fortune 500 CEOs are the virgins, and he is the Chad. Tulsa spent the last few months going full galaxy brain in an attempt to land the Cybertruck factory. And it nearly worked.

The story of the competition for Tesla’s new factory began the way many stories about Tesla do: with a tweet from Elon Musk.

“Scouting locations for Cybertruck Gigafactory,” he tweeted on March 10th. “Will be central USA.” In addition to building the Cybertruck, Musk added that the factory would make Model Y SUVs destined for the East Coast of the United States.

Tesla opened its first Gigafactory in Nevada in 2016. The company refers to the Solar City factory it acquired in Buffalo, New York, in 2016 as Gigafactory 2. The company built a third Gigafactory in China in 2019 and recently broke ground on a fourth outside Berlin, Germany.

But Tesla’s only vehicle factory in the US, located in Fremont, California, is bursting at the seams — so much so that the company famously started making Model 3s in a tent in 2018. With the Model Y being introduced earlier this year and new models on the way like the Cybertruck, the Tesla Semi, and the new Roadster, it needed another factory in North America.

When Tesla announced it was looking to build the original Gigafactory in early 2014, it went on a roadshow of sorts, soliciting bids from around the country in hopes of scoring massive tax incentives. Tesla ultimately landed a $1.3 billion package from Nevada, the largest in the state’s history and one of the 15 biggest given out in the United States at the time.

This bake-off method worked so well, in fact, that it inspired jealousy in Jeff Bezos and became the genesis of the American Idol-style search he led for Amazon HQ2.

Musk appeared ready to run a similar playbook with the Cybertruck factory. Immediately after his March 10th tweet, TechCrunch reported that Tesla was considering Nashville, Tennessee. By the end of that week, Colorado, Arkansas, and other states had reached out to Tesla. The city of Joplin, Missouri, offered land and an incentive package. And a mysterious website promising a “Big Fucking Field” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, appeared alongside a Twitter account of the same name.

“Hey Elon, We hear you need a big f*cking field,” the site proclaimed on March 17th in white Neue Haas Grotesk Display text in front of a GIF of the Cybertruck jumping a ramp in what looks like BeamNG.drive — a notorious vehicle simulator equally known for its realistic crash physics and the godlike level of control it affords. (It was the software at the heart of a popular Polygon series Car Boys.) “We’ve got just the place for your Cybertruck Gigafactory. It’s in Tulsa.”

But there was no formal contact name or number, no government email address. Just some information about the 1,500-acre plot of land surrounded by a bunch of shitposting.

“Don’t trust us. Trust your friends. Tulsa’s BFF is gaining national recognition,” the site read. Below that, four fake quotes from people connected, in varying degrees, to Musk. Joe Rogan: “Elon, this is good grass, I mean it, dude.” Steve Jobs: “I have tasted the dirt in Oklahoma, and it is delicious.” Peter Thiel: “The spirit of Harambe is heavy on this land.” Thomas Edison: “To build Cybertrucks, you need a good imagination and a giant field.” The site was full of Tesla in-jokes, such as photos of Ludacris, and a reference to Musk’s “rave cave” tweet. The site even noted the distance to the headquarters of Musk’s favorite regulatory agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission (1,053 miles, if you were curious).

The group behind the site was a marketing firm called Gitwit Creative. Jacob Johnson, one of Gitwit’s co-founders, told The Verge on a phone call that his team created it on a whim after they saw Musk’s tweet. The only guideline his team had was to make whatever they’d make if they hadn’t been hired by some city official. “They came up with some rad ideas, and we just said, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it.’” Johnson said. “Like, ‘Let’s just pull something together and do what we think cities should be doing.’”

Johnson said Gitwit doesn’t hadn’t done a lot of economic development work until recently, and he found most of it to be “really boring.”

“It’s the same stuff over and over,” Johnson said. So his goal was to “just try to get on [Tesla’s] radar, which is a challenge for mid-market cities like Tulsa.”

Around the same time that Big Fucking Field went live, Sean Kouplen, Oklahoma’s secretary of commerce and workforce development, says people kept sending him Musk’s initial tweet. Oklahoma, he told The Verge over a Zoom call, has “got a new brand” and has “had some really good luck bringing in businesses the last couple of years.” So naturally, friends and colleagues thought he’d be leading a push for Tesla’s new factory.

Oklahoma hadn’t started on anything official, but Kouplen believed it was worth a shot. He tweeted at Musk and put out a call on Facebook and LinkedIn for people to do the same. He even called Gov. Kevin Stitt and asked him to tweet at the Tesla CEO.

“I said, ‘Hey, would you send Elon a tweet? You know, maybe he’ll read yours,’” Kouplen recalled.

Stitt obliged: “Oklahoma is innovative. Oklahoma is the Hub of America. Oklahoma is truck country. Let’s talk, @elonmusk.” Kouplen says an employee at Tesla ultimately told him Musk received somewhere on the order of 40,000 tweets from this early push.

While all of this was happening in mid-March, though, the coronavirus was spreading rapidly through the United States, and the first signs that shutdowns would be necessary started to pop up. One of the first areas in the country to draw up shelter-in-place orders were the counties that make up the San Francisco Bay Area, including Alameda, where Tesla’s Fremont factory is located. Tesla, like other businesses deemed nonessential, had to suspend operations for weeks.

Musk was furious. In his eyes, there would be “close to zero” cases in the United States by the end of April. He fought to keep the Fremont factory open while downplaying the risk that the virus presented. As some places around the country began considering relaxing restrictions in late April and early May, Musk exploded. “FREE AMERICA NOW,” he tweeted on April 29th, while saying shelter-in-place orders were “forcibly imprisoning people in their homes … against all their constitutional rights.”

Musk threatened to move Tesla’s operations out of California altogether in April and had Tesla sue Alameda County. He then reopened the Fremont factory on May 11th in violation of the public health order. On May 15th, Electrek reported that Tesla had chosen Austin, Texas, for the Cybertruck factory. Whatever bake-off Musk had been planning appeared to be over.

Or was it? Hours after that article published, three others — from TechCrunch, AP, and CNBC — followed with the news that Tulsa was still in the running.

Meanwhile, Kouplen and others had pushed throughout March and April to join the disparate efforts to solicit Tesla to Tulsa. That started with embracing what Gitwit was doing, even if he didn’t speak the language.

“Either it was going to sink us, you know, because it would be viewed as very distasteful or, you know…” he said, trailing off. “We had really researched Tesla’s culture … and it’s a pretty free-flowing company. They’re very authentic.”

Kouplen described the site as “kind of like a Hail Mary move.” But, he said, “at that time, our chances got pretty slim anyway, so [we hoped] it would get their attention and kind of get us on the map and maybe get us a little bit of traction.”

Meanwhile, the people at Gitwit kept adapting the site to real-world developments. “Big Fucking Field here,” it read in late May. “Yes, I’ve heard the news — it’s between me and Austin. The choice seems pretty clear. And if it’s not… allow me to assist.” Below that was a link to a new website (“austinsaysno.com”) full of supposed reasons why “Austin doesn’t want Tesla.”

All of the hype actually worked. Tesla and Oklahoma began talking about what a factory in the state would look like, according to Kouplen, who started rounding up site options from cities. After a brief conference call, the state submitted its initial proposal. It was officially in the running. (Tesla did not make anyone available for comment for this story.)

But by this point, Tesla had locked down a location in Texas and was already moving on to the boring stuff that comes with these types of projects, like hammering out details with local officials in closed-door meetings. Tulsa needed more memes.

Turning the Golden Driller into a 70-foot-tall idol of one of the world’s leading billionaires was a “ridiculous stunt we could do that represents the support of Tulsa,” said Johnson, who saw the irony of dressing up a literal symbol of the oil industry (“super comical”).

Johnson’s team sent mock-ups to Stenstrom and his employer, Meeks Lithography. While many people thought Musk’s face was painted on the Driller, it’s actually the same kind of vinyl that’s used to wrap vehicles, according to Andrew Aldridge, one of the two “installers” who applied Musk’s face to the statue. The Driller looked ridiculous — which was perfect.

The Golden Driller, pre-Musk makeover.

“We just knew it would get press,” Johnson said. “That really became the only goal: how do we just stay in The Twitter feeds and inboxes of Tesla executives?”

On a sunny Wednesday morning in late May, Danny O’Connor stood in front of the Musk-masked Golden Driller. O’Connor is best known as Danny Boy, the other rapper who, along with Everlast, made up the ‘90s group House of Pain (of “Jump Around” fame), O’Connor was stuck trying to fill time until mayor G.T. Bynum showed up.

A Tulsa transplant, O’Connor is known in the city for buying and restoring the house from the 1983 movie The Outsiders. He was warming up the socially distanced crowd for Bynum, who was running late. (The mayor was being chauffeured to the stage in a Tesla as part of a parade organized by the local Tesla Owners Club, which was slowly snaking its way around the Driller.)

Vexed and burning up in the late spring sun — O’Connor is, in his own words, “tragically Irish” — he turned to the 70-foot statue behind him.

“Will you look at this big effing guy? I mean come on!” he said. “And Elon, we’ve got a big effing field for you. Trust me when I tell you that, my friend.” A few beats went by. He repeated himself. “Is this not the biggest, effing coolest statue that you’ve ever seen?”

With the Tesla parade complete, Bynum finally arrived at the event, sparing O’Connor’s fair skin. He spoke about Tulsa’s love for entrepreneurs, and how the city originally boomed, thanks to the rise of the oil industry. And he spoke about how Tesla could help the city start that cycle all over again but with a focus on clean energy.

“We’re so excited as a community about the potential opportunity in front of us to work together, so we as a community came up with something that I think is pretty cool as a way of showing how we want to roll out that red carpet and partner with this company,” he said.

Just as the translucent sheet blocking the Driller started to tear, he gave the command. “Let’s see the Golden Elon.” The giant Musk facsimile, complete with a Tesla logo “shirt” and Tesla-branded belt buckle, was revealed.

Upon seeing “Golden Elon,” Kouplen thought: “Oh, my gosh, we’re going to infuriate every oil and gas producer in Oklahoma — which is a lot. And they’re very powerful and important and do a lot of civic engagement.” But when he called “several oil and gas execs,” some of whom he says are “real good friends,” they didn’t mind. Ultimately, Kouplen said, they realized that everyone was just “trying to come up with the best ways to keep us in the game” to win the factory.

Johnson remembered looking at the statue and thinking: “Oh shit, what did we just do?” But the reaction was ultimately positive, he said, and he’s happy with how the stunt turned out — even though it came together so fast that Gitwit Creative got stuck with the bill, which wound up being around $10,000.

“I still don’t know if we figured out who we’re going to get to pay us back for that,” he said with a laugh.

The Golden Elon went viral. Shortly after, Bynum tweeted a mock-up of a Cybertruck made to look like a Tulsa police vehicle. A Tulsa weatherman tweeted his own mock-up of the Cybertruck done up with his station’s logo. (“Hey @elonmusk can’t wait to storm chase with you in the @NewsOn6 @Tesla storm chasing truck,” he wrote.) A local production company made a parody of the Lincoln ads that feature Matthew McConaughey, shot in a Tesla Model 3.

“There was an incredibly concerted effort by everyone in the Tulsa community, both official and unofficial, to prove that we could do something different and to ultimately show kind of the innovative spirit that truly does exist here,” Johnson said.

In late May, they caught another break. Kouplen and Stitt were invited to Kennedy Space Center to attend SpaceX’s astronaut launch in late May by NASA administrator (and former Oklahoma congressman) Jim Bridenstine. That included a dinner with the alternate astronauts and, of course, Musk.

Kouplen said the discussion was focused on space and that it was very informal. (The group ate pizza; Kouplen’s pretty sure Musk dined on pepperoni.) The commerce secretary allowed himself to take one self-effacing shot at talking shop, telling Musk he was “the guy that gets fired if Tesla doesn’t come to Oklahoma.”

By the end of the night, though, Musk was asking Kouplen and Stitt about Oklahoma’s workforce. Musk gave Kouplen his email address. He also asked about the Golden Driller. Just over one month later, Musk flew to Tulsa to see the Big Fucking Field in person.

A common theory over the last two months was Tesla was just using Tulsa for leverage; that it was only “in the running” so Tesla could extract as much value from the state and local governments in Texas, like a scaled-down version of the bake-off it held six years ago.

It did speed up some of the discussions in Texas. After weeks of closed-door discussions and marathon public comment sessions, officials in Travis County — where Austin is located — finally debated whether to vote on an incentive package. One official wanted another week to digest the deal. But others worried that any further delay would benefit Tulsa.

The officials turned to Tesla’s senior global director of public policy, Rohan Patel, who was videoconferencing into the meeting, and asked him if the company could wait another week. He told the Travis County officials that Tesla had just had a call with a governor and a mayor from a different state and city the day before. Patel declined to say more, but the insinuation was enough to spook the officials. They decided to vote and approved the deal.

Tesla only netted around $60 million in total tax breaks from Travis County and the local Del Valle school district, though. And in a major break from the path it took to choosing Nevada six years ago, the company got zero incentives from the state, the Texas governor’s office tells The Verge.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, had drawn up a proposal that was “comparable” to the Nevada incentive package, according to Kouplen. While Tesla never got to the point of trying to hash out a deal with Oklahoma in public meetings like it did in Texas, Kouplen said the state and the company spent about two months talking “pretty much all day long” about details in the state’s proposal. He declined to discuss specifics because of an NDA with Tesla.

“It was very compelling. We literally threw everything on the table. We had tribes participating. We had the city participating. The state, local foundations participating,” he said. “We knew what the Reno package was. And we were trying to create a package comparable to that. And we did.”

Musk said way back in March that incentives would play a role in Tesla’s decision on where to build, but so would the local workforce and the quality of life. In early August, after Tesla announced it had chosen the land outside Austin, he told Automotive News that “key members of the team that would need to move to Austin from California in order to get the factory going” had “Austin [was] their top pick, to be totally frank.”

Tesla coming to Austin may have simply been a fait accompli. After all, one month before Musk kicked off Tesla’s search with a tweet, he sent another that simply said “Giga Texas?” with a poll attached. (The two options? “Hell yeah” and “Nope.” 80.2 percent of the 300,000 people who voted chose the former.)

And yet, the meme-heavy push to bring Tesla to Tulsa worked well enough to get Musk to come see the Big Fucking Field in person — during a pandemic, no less.

Tesla may have passed on Oklahoma, but Musk said he will “strongly consider” the state for future projects. After all, Kouplen pointed out, Oklahoma has an automotive manufacturing base and is already home to suppliers in the aerospace industry. Just in case SpaceX ever needs more, you know, space.

As for the Driller, Musk’s face wound up being replaced with a surgical mask in an effort to inspire Tulsans to beat back the coronavirus. And the website? It’s been redesigned to resemble a Myspace page after a breakup. “This page is now about me living my truth and playing the field,” it says.

Below that, a button that’s linked to an email address reads: “wanna hook up?”