The template for corporate response to consumer deaths was stamped in 1982 with the Extra Strength Tylenol murders. Some lunatic was opening packages on retail shelves and lacing the capsules with cyanide.
Johnson & Johnson, owner of marketer McNeil Laboratories, immediately recalled all Tylenol products from store shelves.
While it was a bona fide corporate nightmare -- and while J&J was rightly lauded for its quick and thorough response -- the circumstances weren't even remotely as threatening to the company as what Ford and Firestone-owner Bridgestone-Firestone face now.
In 1982, it was clear J&J itself bore no culpability. It's easy to do the responsible thing when everybody knows you weren't responsible. The good will built through selfless corporate action wasn't merely a bonus; it was entirely predictable. You can't buy PR that good.
The current crisis is very different. Dozens of people died in Ford vehicles equipped -- by Ford -- with apparently defective Firestone tires.
Furthermore, loud voices have been raised about slow action and negligence in alerting the public.
Bridgestone faces the worse repercussions, including criminal inquiries. And, having lost face and faith once before in the Firestone 500 debacle, Firestone may have lost its final bit of credibility as a brand.
But Ford's backseat is also in a sling, and some highly public statement of concern and concerted corporate action -- in a post-Tylenol world -- was the minimum expectation. Lo and behold, it materialized, in the person of Ford President-CEO Jacques Nasser.
"As Firestone has announced its safety recall of tires equipped on some of our vehicles, I wanted you to hear directly from me on what we are doing to ensure your safety. We've been working around the clock to identify the problem and replace the affected tires as quickly as possible.
"Most likely, your vehicle is not affected. This past week, we've identified over 30 replacement tire brands and we have expanded the number of outlets where you can go to get new tires. In addition, to meet short-term demand, we're stopping some vehicle production to increase the supply of tires. You have my personal guarantee that all the resources of Ford Motor Company are directed to resolve this situation.
"I want all of our owners to know that there are two things that we never take lightly: your safety and your trust. Thank you."
The two most important statements are the last, affirming the company's commitment to safety, and the one about vehicle production. To stop making and selling new trucks in order to supply consumers with replacement tires is almost Tylenolian in scale.
Unfortunately, hardly anybody will notice that, because Nasser himself is a distraction. One of the most well-liked and respected automotive chairmen in decades, he is reputed to have charisma by the bucketful. But not in this commercial. Here is this guy with a Lebanese last name, a French first name (pronounced Jack instead of Zhock), with a thick Australian accent and -- instead of the charcoal gray pinstripes -- the world's ugliest $4,000 Italian suit.
That's just a lot of inputs to process all at once.
Furthermore, his arms go up and down, to and fro, not like a charismatic executive, but like an animatronic rodent at Chuck E. Cheese. He's had either too little media training or (our suspicion) too much.
All of this begs the question of why Nasser is doing the spot at all and not William Clay Ford Jr., the corporate chairman whose family name is on millions of cars worldwide. Big mistake.
Nonetheless, what matters here is not the substance of the effort but the effort itself. The public expects an expression of corporate concern, and this will suffice. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the media buy is the message. Very well. Message received.