First there was the Super Bowl slam, where drivers of Chevy Silverado trucks lament the loss of their buddy Dave, who doesn't survive an apocalypse because he drove a Ford. Now Chrysler runs a national spot from Doner that poses the question: What if you were to take away horsepower, torque and warranty coverage from a Ram? "Well," says the grizzled voice-over, "you'd end up with a Ford F-150."
A dogfight has raged for decades in the truck category, where sniping at the competition has been a puerile pastime. But the jabs seem to be coming faster and harder of late, as rivals beat up on Ford.
How long, though, before it hits back?
Ford isn't saying -- "We haven't seen the ad yet, so we'll reserve comment until we do," said a Ford spokesman -- but the marketer has not always been satisfied to take the high road.
In September, Ford got some heat when it ran a provocative spot as part of its "Drive One" campaign, spotlighting Chris, an F-150 driver. Facing a barrage of questions from reporters, Chris says, "I wasn't going to buy another car that was bailed out by our government. I was going to buy from a manufacturer that 's standing on its own: win, lose or draw. That's what America is about."
The subtle-as-a-hammer reference was to General Motors and Chrysler taking a government bailout in 2008. The ad prompted immediate reaction, and at one point Ford pulled it from YouTube, claiming that was part of a "planned rotation," and then reposted it. Some speculated that the takedown came after Ford allegedly received a request from the White House. Ford's agency is Team Detroit.
The incident proves that while horsepower, reliability and "guts and glory" often enter the commercial conversations about trucks, politics are hardly out of bounds.
And it has always been that way, said GM Global CMO Joel Ewanick. "There have been good-natured, competitive truck ads as long as we can remember," he said. "We don't know this for a fact, but we would guess that the Hatfields drove Chevy trucks and the McCoys drove Ford trucks."
Good-natured? That might be a stretch. Consider a Dodge Ram ad from 2002 that animated the infamous little- boy-peeing decal popular among truck owners -- only to have him butted by the Ram logo. The voice-over: "Don't mess with the most powerful, longest-lasting line of trucks."
In the past few months, Chrysler has been active in the one-upmanship ranks, taking aim at Ford Explorer and F-150 trucks in its ads for Dodge Ram and Durango trucks, citing issues such as warranty coverage and towing capabilities.
A spokesman chalked it up to customer service. "Truck customers are well informed and make educated decisions. As such, Ram wanted to point out the clear advantages in our product compared to the competition in a fact-based, straightforward manner so that the consumer could make an informed decision."
"Truck guys have always been willing to name names, and this sort of thing has been going on for years," said Michael Jordan, executive editor of Edmunds.com. "Does anyone compare themselves to "the leading brand' these days except soap manufacturers? Trucks are about utility -- the things they do. Things get tough when there's more than brand imagery involved."
How much tougher on the ad front it will get? While Ford has zipped its corporate lip so far, there's no love lost with the Hatfields. In the recently published "Once Upon a Car," written by longtime New York Times automotive reporter Bill Vlasic, he quotes Ford's VP-global marketing, Jim Farley: "Fuck GM. I hate them and their company and what they stand for. And I hate the way they're succeeding."
In August 2011 he apologized to Mr. Ewanick -- six months before the Silverado salvo aired on the Super Bowl.