DER SPIEGEL Survey Musk Destroys Tesla Image in Germany

Germans have a disastrous view of Tesla, with company founder Elon Musk's behavior hardly helping. Whether from a likeability or quality perspective, the Tesla brand is far behind its German competitors.
Anti-hero Elon Musk at the opening of Tesla's new factory in Texas in April 2022

Anti-hero Elon Musk at the opening of Tesla's new factory in Texas in April 2022

Foto: Bob Daemmrich / ZUMA Wire / IMAGO

Elon Musk, it would seem, is eager to drag his followers into the abyss of conspiracy theory credulity – but is anyone taking the bait? The top dog of Tesla and Twitter has never been shy when it comes to polarizing statements, of course, but even by his standards, the last several days have been disturbing for his willingness to make right-wing positions his own. He went after the U.S. virologist Anthony Fauci, he has made light of people who want to determine their own sexual identity and he has generally declared war on "woke." During an appearance in San Francisco, Musk was booed for several minutes, and actor Billy Baldwin launched a trend with the hashtag #BoycottTesla.

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In Germany, the calls for boycott were hardly necessary. That is the clear message of a survey conducted on behalf of DER SPIEGEL by the public opinion research institute Civey. Some 47 percent of the auto enthusiasts surveyed responded that Musk’s current behavior has had a "clearly negative" influence on their opinion of Tesla. An additional 16 percent said their reaction has been "rather negative." Only 3 percent said they have a "rather positive" impression of Musk’s recent behavior, and an additional 6 percent rated their impression as "clearly positive." The survey was carried out between Dec. 1 to 9, prior to Musk’s most recent outbursts.

In late October, after Musk took over control of Twitter, a number of public reactions already began indicating that the image of Tesla, the world’s leading electric car brand, was taking a beating. Alena Buyx, chair of the German Ethics Council, said at the time that she was no longer interested in buying a Tesla. "It’s something you can’t do anymore,” she said.

In the U.S., the public opinion research company Morning Consult  reported that Tesla’s popularity has suffered a nosedive primarily among supporters of the Democratic Party, which have traditionally dominated the e-car market. Since the beginning of the year, trust in the Tesla brand had been trending downward only slightly, says Morning Consult, but that Musk’s acquisition of Twitter "acted as a break in the dam." Elon Musk’s polarizing personality, the consulting company found, is negatively impacting Tesla.

The new survey commissioned by DER SPIEGEL has now revealed the same impact on the company’s image in Germany as that seen in the U.S. – just nine months after the carmaker opened up a new gigafactory outside of Berlin. And in contrast to the U.S., where Tesla seems poised to replace at least some of its disaffected supporters with new fans among pro-Trump Republicans, the same dynamic is nowhere to be seen in Germany. The broad rejection of Musk’s persona is apparent across all age, professional and educational groups in the country and it is independent of gender, region, family status, degree, religion and political affiliation.

The only exception is among those who proclaim to be supporters of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), with only 35 percent of such respondents saying they had a negative reaction to Musk’s behavior. But even within this group, the negative reactions outweighed the positive (23 percent).

Even without explicit mention of Musk, only 9 percent of Germans said they find Tesla to be "very" or "rather likeable." Fully 69 percent, by contrast, said they found the manufacturer to be "less" or "not at all likeable." That makes Tesla by far the least popular company among large carmakers with production sites in Germany, a finding once again independent of political party preference.

The survey revealed more polarization when it comes to Germany’s tradition-rich luxury brands like Mercedes, Porsche, BMW and Audi, which are generally viewed negatively on the left side of the political spectrum, but more positively on the right, with center-left Social Democrats also showing a weakness for Audi. Mass producers like Volkswagen, Opel and Ford, by contrast, tend to be more balanced, or they trigger very little reaction at all. Only Tesla is viewed negatively across all political parties. Musk’s company generates the highest likeability ratings among university students (27 percent), those under the age of 30 (22 percent), voters for the far-left Left Party (21 percent) and civil servants (17 percent). In all cases, though, Tesla supporters make up a clear minority.

Tesla also isn’t able to rely on its aura of being a technological leader. In response to the Civey question as to whether respondents view the vehicles produced by the different brands as high-quality products, only 21 percent answered positively when it came to Tesla.

That value puts Tesla at the very back of the pack, behind even Ford and Opel, both of which are also produced in Germany but which belong to foreign companies. Traditional German producers received top marks on the quality question. But Tesla has also been the focus of numerous negative reports  in the U.S. when it comes to quality and safety, in part because of the disastrous press its driver assistance system has received.

The survey does not allow for conclusions to be drawn on general attitudes in favor of or against electric vehicles. Tesla is the only manufacturer on the list to specialize entirely in e-autos and leads the segment both in Germany and elsewhere in the world when it comes to the number of vehicles registered. But other brands are offering more and more battery-powered vehicles. From January to November, 52,000 new Teslas were registered in Germany, according to the KBA, the German agency responsible for motorized vehicle registration. That represents around one-seventh of all fully electric vehicles in the country, with VW hot on its heels.

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