Ford spends to counter slump

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Ford Division is cranking up its 2002-model ad push in earnest this quarter as the aftereffects of a weak economy and the events of Sept. 11 weaken consumer demand.

New Focus and Thunderbird commercials are coming in November, with print spreads for T-bird running in October magazines through the end of the year. TV spots for the Ford Motor Co. division's pickup trucks broke last week and Ford's April launch spots for the redone 2002 Explorer, changed from its original format of owner testimonials, are continuing.

Ford's push comes as the majority of vehicle marketers saw unit sales decline in September vs. a year ago, a direct result of the attacks and declining consumer confidence. Ford brand, already hurt by the Bridgestone/Firestone tire debacle and its own quality problems, reported unit sales were off by 8% last month vs. a year ago and down by 10 % for the year.

"This is a team that knows how to win, even if it's a tough climate," said Rich Stoddart, who joined the division in April overseeing advertising as marketing communications manager. The former director of account management at Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis, said one of his main objectives is to move Ford ads to a more "aspirational place."

That's probably easiest with the all-new Thunderbird. The nameplate, discontinued in 1997 after 43 years, returns as a two-seater convertible. WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, created four spreads that don't show the entire roadster. One shows only part of the roof, where a heart is drawn in steam on the classic porthole window. "Let the stories begin," says the headline. Another ad shows the rear end of a red T-bird and says, "Room for your luggage, not your baggage."

Ford already has 20,000-plus orders for the 2002 T-bird and plans to produce only 25,000 of them. So why advertise? "Because it's a connection to the past and a look to the future," he said. "This is about what Ford Motor Co. can do. It's about passions."

Mr. Stoddart said he doesn't seek wholesale changes in the division's creative, but he wants general market ads to be "a little more diverse" to reflect today's multicultural world. So, an English version of an upcoming Focus commercial from Ford's Hispanic agency, Zubi Advertising, Coral Gables, Fla., will air in general market programming. The spot shows a young male picking up four girls in the ZX5 five-door model. "What would you do with room for five," the narrator asks.

JWT is also creating a series of :15s for the Focus. One shows a yellow smiling face that morphs with G-forces. As the camera moves away, the viewer realizes it's a ball sitting on the speeding car's radio antenna. Dave Latta, senior partner and group brand director on Ford's account at JWT, said plans call for the :15s to air solo in commercial pods.

One of four new truck-line commercials from JWT shows a group of white and black electrical workers fixing a blown, heavy-duty transformer. In a continuation of last year's "pop culture" series of ads, the narrator asks "ever seen West Side Story?" Then, he wonders aloud whether it's believable that gangs settled their differences with song and dance. Another spot shows farm workers, as the narrator says "you gotta love Johnny Cash" because the country singer "doesn't need sparkly outfits." Mr. Cash's voice is heard at the end saying "that's the way to get it done." All four spots end with the "Built Ford Tough" tag.

Mr. Stoddart declined to discuss fourth-quarter spending. He said the 2002 ad budget isn't finalized, noting "The environment changes every day." The brand spent $149 million in measured media in last year's fourth quarter, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. In the first half of 2001, the marketer spent $227 million, according to CMR.

To boost sales, Ford started offering no-interest financing on its vehicles Sept. 20, a day after General Motors Corp. announced the same deal. Incentives are also up. Ford division's incentives averaged $3,276 per vehicle last month vs. $2,600 a year ago, according to auto consultancy CNW Marketing/Research.

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