Ford: Good Intention, Misguided Execution

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How else to interpret Bill Ford's bizarre advertising appeal to the American public, a groveling plea for mercy and consumer forbearance disguised (badly) as a rallying cry?

To schmaltzy background music salvaged from the tear-jerking climax of every Frank Capra movie, the beleaguered chairman tacitly acknowledges his car company's mounting losses, factory closings, layoffs and market-share woes with the message, essentially:

Cross my heart and hope to die, we'll make a car you wish to buy. Who pays the piper calls the tune, but not this year nor very soon.

Don't accept our paraphrase. Listen to Ford himself, posed stiffly in front of the Ford display at what looks like the 1988 Auto Show.

"The American auto industry is facing new challenges. Fierce competition calls for a rebirth of America's innovative spirit. At Ford, we're rising to the challenge, making new investments in research and development, attracting new customers with bold new designs like the Ford Fusion and innovations like hybrid SUVs. Ford and Volvo engineers are working together to find new safety innovations. We're determined to retake the American roadway. And, as always, innovation is leading the way."

Calls for. We're rising. Making investments. Working to find. Determined to retake.

Well, thanks for the pep talk, Bill. We're looking forward to the fruits of these efforts, along about the second Chelsea Clinton administration. Meantime, which way to the Toyota dealership?

Not that the man's heart is in the wrong place. We ourselves love a nice mea culpa, even if it comes in the midst of extreme unction. The company just reported a third-quarter pre-tax loss of $1.2 billion in North America alone, which it responded to by shuttering 14 plants and laying of 30,000 workers. By what it promises for the future, the commercial apologizes for from the past:

The greedy emphasis on high-profit gas guzzlers at the expense of R&D.

The short-sighted and self-destructive reliance on rebates and other margin-destroying price promotions.

The quality shortcomings that led to an overwhelming tab on warranty repairs.

So, yeah, no more of that nonsense is a very good place for the revival of Ford Motor Co. to start. And this commercial would certainly be a nifty tool to instill a sense of purpose in Ford's 11 or 12 remaining employees. In fact, the ad seems to be as much of a message to employees and the dealer network as it is to the public-which is exactly why it should not be shown to the public.

First of all, the dealers are going to be apoplectic. Wouldn't you, if you were sitting on a gazillion dollars worth of inventory, and the manufacturer was apologizing for it? Bill Ford correctly observes that the ultimate target audience must be the ultimate consumer, but that doesn't dictate pulling the rug from under the thousands of business partners who make consumer sales happen.

The main issue, though-and the reason this exercise is so bizarre-is that the Ford Motor Co. is implicitly bad-mouthing Ford products that aren't so terrible to begin with. The cars are fine. The trucks are fine. The Mustang is a big hit with Mustang freaks. The Fusion and 500 have been widely praised. The F-150 is the best-selling full-size truck in the galaxy. The Focus is a bona fide "world car." Jaguars are still beautiful. The Mazda3 is a gem. Volvo is still Volvo. And if you are a dentist or a pimp, isn't the Lincoln Navigator de rigeur?

Innovation is good. Self-criticism is good. Self-immolation is not.

Review: 1star

Ad: Ford Motor Co.

Agency: Ogilvy & Mather

Location: Dearborn, Mich.

Agency: Penn Schoen & Berland

Location: Washington