Ford Hands Social-Media Strategy to Puppet Named 'Doug'

Plus: The Top 10 Spokes-puppets of All Time

By Published on .

Matthew Yeomans
Matthew Yeomans

Last year Ford put its Fiesta brand in the hands of America's drivers to help tell the real story behind the car. This year the company has placed its social-media faith in an orange puppet called Doug.

Doug isn't your normal benign company spokesperson. He's full of attitude and kinda funny or kinda obnoxious depending on your point of view. In the official launch "episode" of what Ford hopes will become a must-watch-and-share set of video snacks, Doug was unveiled to the media and he revealed himself to be a bit of a lady's man -- as he might put it -- or just downright misogynistic as anxious Ford "execs" described his performance. Subsequent YouTube skits have shown Doug getting to grips with the features of the Focus while also trying to get to grips with the female Ford employee demonstrating them.

What's going on here? Cynics might say that Ford has run out of crowdsourced, tap-into-real-people social-media ideas and so an irascible puppet is the next logical step away from those old-school sweeping Canyonlands "real American" TV adverts.

But in the annals of adland Ford is following a well-rehearsed script of using puppet power to help add spice to a brand. Puppets, after all, allow brands to get away with stuff no actual human brand representative could try. Imagine a real actor trying to be as louche as Doug -- it just wouldn't work for the brand. Ford also understands that social media affords brands multiple opportunities for experimentation/edgy engagement with customers. Doug's behavior could be alienating on TV but in the back-and-forth banter of social-media conversation it is likely to be embraced and shared just as much as it is criticized or ignored.

So can Doug achieve media greatness in the fickle world of social-media marketing or will he end up on the scrap heap of failed puppet props? Here are 10 puppet brand ambassadors that could teach him a few tricks:

1. Wilkins Coffee
Some say Jim Henson's Wikins puppet character, created in 1958 to hawk an eponymous coffee brand, was the inspiration for Kermit. We think Doug might also be taken inspiration from this granddaddy of brand puppets.

2. Basil Brush and Haze Pomander
A generation of Brit kids grew up watching Basil Brush, his rapid-fire patter (he could have been scripted by Aaron Sorkin) and his famous "Boom Boom" punchline. Appearing for an air freshener was not his finest moment.

3. Muppets do Polaroid
In the early 1980s, the Muppets were at the height of their powers and Polaroid film and instant cameras were still cutting edge. A rare case where a puppet dynasty has outlasted the product it was promoting.

4. Flat Eric and Levi's
Flat Eric was adapted (or adopted) in 1999 from a French music video and refitted to help sell Levi's Sta-Prest jeans. He became an instant cult classic and even starred in the U.K. version of "The Office."

For one year, the sock puppet shone more brightly than any branded puppet had shone before. The first puppet to have its own Super Bowl ad (complete with the instantly recognizable punchline "Because pets can't drive!"), the puppet also scored interviews with "Good Morning America" and had its own Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float. flamed and died in the dot-com crash but the sock puppet lived on, as the brand advocate for auto loan firm Bar None.

6. Kermit does Ford Escape
The greenest of all Muppets probably struck ad execs as a smart puppet choice to front this 2006 Ford Escape hybrid advert. Alas, Kermit's fronting for an SUV was dismissed as greenwashing. He was on safer ground with Jessica Simpson talking green pepper toppings for Pizza Hut.

7. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, Most Valuable Puppets
The puppet re-creation of the Kobe-LeBron basketball rivalry was an instant online and offline hit for Nike . It spawned a whole series of videos as well as a merchandise range.

8. Zappos employee puppets
Social-media darling Zappos chose a novel approach for its first TV ad -- it recreated its customer-service employees as "Avenue Q"-style puppets, or "zappets," as the brand called them. The scripts were actual customer-service conversations to show how politely Zappos handles even the zaniest of requests.

9. Thunderbirds and SpecSavers
Those of us in our 40s normally reach a point when we need glasses, so what better way to appeal to this nostalgic demographic than through cult TV characters from our youth. Hence, the return of Gerry Anderson creations The Thunderbirds and Joe 90 in this British SpecSavers ad.

10. Lipton Brisk Ice-Tea
Another Super Bowl, another puppet, but this time the mantle is stolen by Eminem. The dog was funnier.

Matthew Yeomans is co-founder of Custom Communication, an online strategy, training and content consultancy, and editor-at-large of Social Media Influence.
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