Harvey S. Firestone founded the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in 1900 in Akron, Ohio, the home of the U.S. rubber industry. In 1905, Mr. Firestone convinced Henry Ford to put Firestone tires on the $500 Ford automobiles that would soon be coming off his assembly line. It was the first step for a small tire company that became a global giant in the industry.
Firestone, through its agency of many years, Sweeney & James, was an early and loyal sponsor of network radio programming and became one of TV's first advertisers. Firestone sponsored a prestigious music program on the NBC radio network for nearly 30 years. It began in 1928 as the "Firestone Hour," then became the "Voice of Firestone" in 1937. In 1949, it began to simulcast live on the NBC TV network.
In the 1950s, as the audience for the TV show dwindled, NBC became unhappy with the declining ratings and canceled both the radio and TV broadcasts of the "Voice of Firestone" in June 1954. One week later, both programs reappeared on the ABC network in their traditional time slot (8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. [ET] Mondays). ABC subsequently dropped the radio show in June 1957 and canceled the TV show two years later.
Public complaints were vociferous and included a joint resolution opposing the move by the National Education Association and the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. The cancellation triggered a debate about the value of culturally and intellectually significant programming that appeals to a small audience vs. mass audience ratings.
In 1972, Firestone came up against a Federal Trade Commission ruling that said the tire maker's ads had falsely implied its tires were "safe under all conditions of use." The company was ordered to cease and desist making such claims unless scientifically substantiated. In late 1973, Firestone unsuccessfully appealed the ruling and, in 1976, after it had ignored the FTC request, was required to develop a $750,000 print and TV consumer education campaign focusing on tire safety. TV spots began airing in April 1977 and print ads followed in June.
In July, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued notification that the Firestone 500 steel-belted radial tire had a "safety-related defect" and called on the company to voluntarily recall the tires. Firestone initially balked, but after negotiating a waiver of penalties that could have reached $800,000, the company agreed to recall and replace millions of Firestone 500 tires. It was the largest recall in the history of the tire industry to that point (estimated at up to 10 million tires).
Following the disastrous 1970s, Firestone brought in its first president from outside the company in 1980. John J. Nevin faced the challenge of repairing the damaged credibility of the 80-year-old company that was also suffering from a dramatically reduced cash flow. Mr. Nevin cut 27,000 jobs, eliminated quarterly dividends, cut tire inventories, shut down seven North American tire plants and sold the Plastics Division. The dramatic measures returned Firestone to profitability and allowed the company to focus on restoring its image.
In the spring of 1981, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn introduced an innovative $10 million TV campaign for Firestone. Departing from the traditional tire-on-the road commercial, BBDO turned to humor. The new ads featured a fictional tire designer, George Peabody, who was frustrated by his assignment to create a better tire than the Firestone 721. The three TV spots all carried the tagline, "It's one tough tire to top." They aired in prime time and during sports coverage and late-night programming, the latter a new approach for tire advertising
In 1988, Bridgestone Tire Co. of Japan bought Firestone for $2.6 billion and in 1989, Bridgestone USA and Firestone Tire & Rubber merged, forming Bridgestone/Firestone.
In 2000, Firestone Tires used by Ford on its Explorer sports utility vehicles were shown to have a history of tread separation that resulted in fatal car accidents. The dimensions of the problem quickly escalated from crisis to scandal when it was revealed that the manufacturer had knowledge of the problem. Firestone recalled 6.5 million tires on Explorers, and relations between Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone were irreparably damaged as each blamed the other's product for the accidents.
Late in 2001, Firestone reached a $41.5 million settlement with authorities from 53 U.S. states and territories. The settlement required the tire company to cooperate with the continuing investigation of Ford to determine what and when the auto manufacturer knew about tire performance problems on the Explorer.
In April 2001, Firestone broke a TV campaign themed "Making it right" via Grey Global Group's Grey Worldwide, New York, designed to counter the bad press it had received. In 2001, Firestone formally severed its relationship as tire-supplier to Ford. Firestone started advertising in earnest again in 2004, bringing back its classic "Where the rubber meets the road" song from 20-plus years ago.