Garfield's Ad Review: Henry's great grandson may be Ford tough, but he's no Iacocca

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When last we met a Ford CEO in TV commercials, it was the plain-speaking Jacques Nasser-the Italian-suited wonder from down under-vowing to get to the bottom of the exploding tires problem. Also to protect and serve Ford customers, to make reliable vehicles and to do anything else America wanted, including odd jobs around the house.

About five minutes later, Nasser was pursuing other career interests. In some ways he was a well-shod leg of Australian sacrificial lamb, taking the fall for the Ford Explorer-Firestone debacle. But he was also a victim of his own hubris, having ascended on the promise to change Ford's corporate culture, only to infuriate dealers and his own bureaucracy along the way, losing money in the bargain.

So now, with sales in the tank, profits erased, domestic and overseas units in a shambles, comes Bill Ford to the fore. Missing in action during the worst of the tire fiasco, he has taken it upon himself to reacquaint America with the company his visionary-reactionary-nutcase great grandfather founded. And, all in all, he does a pretty good job. Think Jerry Hirshberg from last year's Nissan campaign, only with indescribable wealth, chatting, up close and personal, as the vehicle footage rolls by.

Lately, in automobile advertising, we've seen quite a bit of historical footage intercut with contemporary stuff. Mercedes and Chrysler come to mind, both successful in juxtaposing their lineage with their current state-of-the-art offerings. This technique comes with some risk, however, if the viewer is overly impressed with the old and left cold by the new. "Our best years are behind us" is not a good message to convey. Hence, in this spot, the liberal use of a sleek GT40 concept car and of the new Thunderbird, which is a joy to behold.

The copy itself hits a lot of right notes, too. There's a palpable sense of grit and toughness when he talks about Ford trucks on "the worksite." And when he describes the thrill of meeting Ford workers whose great grandfathers labored for his great grandfather-though he might be exaggerating how much he enjoys the encounters-the sense of unique automotive tradition comes roaring through.

The question in the end, though, is how credible, persuasive and likeable is the born-with-a-silver-Lincoln-in-his-garage Bill Ford. TV at the moment is thick with rich scions who, by dint of hard work, keen minds and the right last name have found themselves in the executive suite. Peter Coors and August Busch IV, for example, have transcended their unhumble beginnings to become attractive spokesmen. Neither of them, however, is asked to pull an Iacocca, the outsider CEO who managed to restore America's faith in Chrysler Corp. during its near-death experience in the `80s. To do that, Bill Ford must establish a genuine emotional connection, and in that he's off to an uneven start.

"Ford has been a part of me since the minute I was born," he says in one spot, "and I wouldn't have it any other way." Well, duh. The obviousness of the sentiment betrays something almost apologetic, as if he were embarrassed by his heritage. Elsewhere, he claims "We're not another nameless, faceless company. We're a company that has a soul." Oh, really? Where, pray, is the evidence of that?

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