Robert S. McNamara and the issue of safety

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The "whiz kids" Henry Ford II recruited after the Second World War did not concern themselves with advertising with one exception: Robert S. McNamara, the smartest and most rational, methodical man of the bunch, whose systematic approach to problems and rigid sense of discipline and integrity often ran counter to the clubby executive culture of Ford and Detroit. What concerned Mr. McNamara by the time he headed the Ford Division in the mid-'50s was safety. He thought Fords should be built for safety, the fact should be advertised and that it would sell cars to the rational buyer.

And no one could make numbers more convincing than Mr. McNamara. Styling was fine, but it couldn't be measured. Padded dashboards and seats belts, on the other hand, could make a quantifiable difference in lives saved. Ten years before Ralph Nader's safety campaigns, seat belts became an option in the 1956 Ford, and JWT created a safety campaign that broke in the fall of 1955: "Ford Lifeguard Design." Safety became dominant over beauty and horsepower in Ford ads.

But within the industry there was alarm. GM quietly whispered to Ford that the campaign would hurt the entire business. As GM advertising extolled torque and acceleration, the numbers that had been Mr. McNamara's ally were soon undermined by another set of numbers that increasingly isolated him. Automotive News summed it up in this headline: "McNamara sells safety. Chevy sells cars."

Early in 1956 JWT was told to resume a more-traditional campaign, de-emphasize the seat belt option and forget about any crash photos. To recapture its youthful image, the agency came back with the frenetic, "Live it up...The lively ones from Ford." Though Mr. McNamara remained convinced the public would buy safety and had the numbers to show it, the experiment in safety marketing was over. The episode was sufficiently brief that it did not become a career-breaker for him, however.

He was named president of Ford in November 1960. However, he resigned two months later to become secretary of defense, first under John Kennedy and then, as a highly controversial figure during the Vietnam War years, under Lyndon Johnson. After leaving government service, he was president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981.

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