Ad Report Card: Bill Ford in the Driver’s Seat

Ford, obviously, is one of the most famous names in business. Henry Ford is a near-mythic icon, and the company that bears his name remains one of the largest in the world. Lately, of course, the name has been synonymous with a troubled public image culminating in executive suite fireworks, as Bill Ford assumed full control of the company his great-grandfather founded. He’s restructuring the car-maker, and he’s trying to spruce up that image a bit—in part by appearing in a series of ads, including TV spots, which you can view by following these links, called “Family,” “Legacy,” “Discovery,” and “Built Ford Tough.” They fall into two categories, the first two being more or less pure image-builders while the second two try to build on the image-buffing to make a more direct pitch.

The image-builders: “Family,” like other spots, opens with a tinted shot of Bill Ford and the words “Ford on Ford,” which fade into a name-and-title caption. “The thing that is special about Ford is, we’re not just another nameless, faceless company,” he says. “We’re a company that has a soul.” We see clips of him talking interspersed with archival footage and various images of smiling workers, male and female, white and black. Plus a few product shots. Ford talks about employees whose families have worked for the company for generations. “It’s so cool to me when I go out and talk to people and the stories are, ‘My grandfather worked with your grandfather,’ ” he says. “To me, that really sets us apart from other major corporations. There is a sense of history here, we have a direct link to that history, and we’re a company that’s really going to preserve that feeling going into the future. To me, the litmus test of whether we’ve done a good job here really is going to be the stories the next generation’s going to tell. I love this place, and I can’t ever imagine doing anything else.”

The second spot, “Legacy,” is very similar, with  maybe more emphasis on archive film. Here Ford’s speech includes these comments: “My great-grandfather Henry Ford really redefined what it meant to live in this country. ‘No Boundaries’ applied to everything he did, and that’s the part of him that really inspires me. It’s a wonderful legacy. At the same time, you can’t emulate anybody. You have to have your own thoughts, your own ideas and leave your own legacy. … This company has always been about looking forward. … Ford has been part of me since the minute I was born, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Test drive: These two spots are a reasonable attempt at leveraging Bill Ford’s most obvious asset, which is in fact his link to the company’s storied past. He’s not exactly battle-tested as a CEO and is obviously subject to skepticism about whether he has any actual ability to lead a company, as opposed to a blood-tied right to lead it. The touchy-feely vibe is a stab at counteracting the cold reality that the current plan has for turning the auto-maker around, which includes shutting down several North American plants and eliminating 35,000 jobs. The ads amount to an attempted sugar-coating of the difficult decisions that Ford faces; it may or may not work, but there’s probably no harm in trying.

The sales-pitch spots: While the remaining two ads look and feel much the same, with similar visuals and an identical tone, the underlying message is different. In “Discover,” Ford says: “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. They called themselves ‘the Vagabonds.’ They sort of invented SUVs.” He goes on to say that he loves the outdoors himself and asserts that “SUVs are what people want, and we do them better than anybody else.” The percentage of the ad devoted to product shots is higher than in the image ads. The same is true in “Built Ford Tough,” a paean to the company’s truck line. “Built Ford Tough isn’t just a slogan; it’s what we deliver,” Ford declares.

Test drive: These ads are much weaker. The truck spot is a total throwaway, coming close to undercutting the spirit of the image ads by so blatantly rehashing their visual style in a warmed-over pitch we’ve already heard a million times.

But the “Discovery” commercial is even worse. Any feeling of “Gosh, that Bill Ford is a regular guy” pretty much evaporates with the story of Gramps camping with the president. That’s, uh, not a Main Street memory, Bill. Now I remember the difference between you and your fourth-generation line workers: You’re the scion of an incredibly wealthy and powerful family, and they’re just praying that their jobs won’t evaporate. Moreover, the leaps from that memory to Bill Ford’s love of the great outdoors to the notion of a Ford SUV as some kind of link to a mythic-frontier past is laughable; and the mention of Firestone, which I guess is there to somehow suggest that Bill Ford is the real heir to that firm’s pioneering past, instead serves as an unpleasant reminder of corporate bickering. This is the spot that reminds the viewer to ask, “OK, so Ford has a special history—so what?” The strength of the first two ads is that they sidestepped this so neatly. The weakness of the second two is that they make the question unavoidable and don’t provide much of an answer.