Ford TV Spots Drenched in Americana

Last year, amid Ford and Firestone's "exploding tires" debacle, America was introduced -- via television commercials -- to the then-CEO and president of Ford Motor Company. Jacques Nasser stood unassumingly in front of a bland backdrop, wearing an expensive Italian suit, and told the nation that Ford was doing everything in its power to get to the bottom of the problem, and would soon emerge stronger than ever. He was well-groomed, and a smooth talker. But was that an accent we heard?

At a time of hyper-patriotism, sagging profit margins, and talk of the "inevitable recession," the Powers That Be made an executive decision about the face of this thoroughly red, white and blue corporation: Out with the Australian, in with the Ancestor.

Enter William Clay Ford Jr.: vegetarian, Buddhist and self-proclaimed "'60s throwback radical," complete with Nehru jacket and beads, who came striding into the role of CEO in late October of last year. Bill, as he likes to be called, is a fourth-generation Ford. As he says in the company's new commercials, "Ford has been part of me since the minute I was born, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

The new Ford-on-Ford spots, which have been running throughout the primetime TV schedule since late February, feature Ford casually talking about the company, the products, and, most certainly, the legacy. At a press conference about the release of the new ads, Ford told reporters he was initially skeptical about the idea of appearing in them. "I can't stand up there with a cigar and say, 'If you can find a better car, buy it'," Ford said, referring to Lee Iacocca's '80s Chrysler ads. "But," he continued, "they said, 'What if you just talked? That I could handle.'"

And talk Ford does, about everything heart-warming and special about one of the largest and most influential corporations in American history. The four spots, entitled "Legacy," "Family," "SUV" and "Truck," muck around in the rhetoric of sentimentality and play with notions of the automobile as a symbol of American freedom.

In "SUV," Ford reveals that a group of American icons gave birth to the now-ubiquitous vehicle. "My two great-grandfathers, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, used to take these camping trips every year with Thomas Edison and whoever the president at the time was," Ford explains over grainy black and white film of a Model T sliding down a hill. "They called themselves 'the Vagabonds.' They sort of invented SUVs."

In "Family," the image of corporation as living being is displayed at full tilt. "I think the thing that is special about Ford is, we're not just another nameless, faceless company," Ford explains. "We're a company that has a soul." The Ford employees who will be affected by the company's January announcement that it will close five plants and cut 21,500 jobs in North America might disagree.

And then there's the issue of environmental stewardship. Before his role as CEO, president and sentimental bolsterer, Bill Ford had made strides from within to bring Ford to a higher level of corporate responsibility. Those ideals are undetectable in the new commercials. In a subtle move to counter any arguments against the regulation of fuel emissions, Ford says in one ad, "Our SUVs provide a great deal of freedom. You can't accept limitations." You hear that, America? To be free, we can't place restrictions or limitations on anything we do. Especially on our cars and trucks, or what comes out of them.

Since the initial popularity of the first four commercials, the company has released two more "Ford on Ford" spots. The new ads, entitled "Mustang" and "Motorsports," were released after the "exceptionally positive" response to the first four. According to Rich Stoddart, a marketing communications manager at Ford, "We are reaching people with a powerful message of what the Ford brand stands for and where it is going."

Where it is going? According to Bill’s speeches, the company is going towards higher fuel efficiency standards, a boost in hybrid vehicle production and eventually a move toward vehicles which rely on hydrogen fuel cells exclusively. "I believe fuel cells will finally end the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine," said Ford in a speech to Greenpeace in October of 2000.

But in "Mustang," over shots of Steve McQueen speeding through the streets of San Francisco in the 1968 movie "Bullitt," Ford says, "A lot of people have accused me of having gasoline in my veins," due to his undying love for the classic car. "If I could have one car for the rest of my life it would be a red Mustang convertible with a throaty V-8," Ford continues. "To me, life doesn’t get any better than that."

Only time will tell if these corporate cheerleading ads will be able to lift Ford above its checkered recent history of shoddy tires and the $5.45 billion loss the company announced last year. But the danger of these ads is in how readily many Americans -- not famed for their wary skepticism -- may believe them. We are naturally drawn toward down-home imagery and the feeling of being connected to something larger than ourselves. We have been told by TV, our president and now advertisements, that this interconnectedness is what makes us strong.

It's a simple formula: Wave an American flag in front of the camera, show blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians laughing and talking in front of your products, and have the great-great-grandson of a powerful American icon appear in your commercials.

But please, make him leave his Nehru jacket and beads at home.

Andrew Beck Grace writes for Flak Magazine. He can be reached at andrewbeckgrace@hotmail.com.

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