Ford's bizarre new SUV ad.
The Spot:A family drives through some gorgeous hills and along a pretty coastline, making picturesque stops at a roadside farm stand and a beach. "The Ford Freestyle crossover," says the voiceover. "More than 500 miles on a tank of gas." Then the SUV pulls to a stop in front of a housing complex, where the dad gets out with his luggage. "Thanks for inviting me this weekend," he says to the mom. He hugs his kids, they say their goodbyes ("See you next week"), and the SUV drives off—leaving Dad by his lonesome. "Bold moves. They happen every day," concludes the announcer.
This is perhaps the weirdest commercial I've covered in this column. It is a freakish mash-up, blending a classically boring car ad with a bizarre stab at social commentary. I can't for the life of me see what Ford hopes to achieve here.
The ad begins with ho-hum familiarity. The stock shots of the smiling family; the artfully filmed vehicle; the announcer's cheerful pitch about fuel efficiency. We're waiting for the lease/buy figures to pop up on screen when … BAM! With no warning, we find ourselves in the grip of a stern domestic drama. The music goes quiet. Dad gazes wistfully at mom, thanking her for this time with his kids. Mom looks back with wet eyes, barely able to muster a reply. The camera pulls out and we see Dad standing alone, with his sad little duffel bag, in front of what one reader termed the "Recent Divorcé Condo Complex." And we're left wondering: Why did this SUV ad turn into Kramer vs. Kramer?
The answer, surprisingly, has something to do with Ford's miserable balance sheet. Ford's market share has tanked, it may soon sell off some of its brands, and the company has announced an overhaul plan it calls—with a Maoist flourish—"the Way Forward" (which largely boils down to closing factories and cutting jobs). In the midst of this crisis, Ford has also launched a broad new marketing effort with another curious name: "Bold Moves."
In many ways, the Bold Moves campaign is the polar opposite of bold. The big-budget ads are all apple-pie hooey, with songs from American Idol stars Kelly Clarkson and Taylor Hicks. Ford has also made support for breast cancer research a part of the campaign, sponsoring the Race for the Cure. (Risky!)
The Bold Moves Web site, on the other hand, is certainly bold, though not necessarily in a good way. Here we see a gritty documentary series (one episode is titled "Fist Full of Doubters") that "takes you inside Ford as it attempts one of the largest turnarounds in corporate history." There's also an essay from a management consultant urging Ford to change its corporate culture. And there are comments from readers who question Ford's tactics and offer their own ideas. It's all a bit shocking: How often do you see a massive corporation get on its knees and publicly beg for salvation? The notion is that Ford is in such desperate straits, it will take nothing less than Bold Moves to save it. The concept is somehow both an internal rallying cry and a marketing strategy. And this is where the divorced-dad spot comes in. It's meant to show us that Ford is up to something new.
According to John Felice, Ford's general marketing manager, the ad is meant to be a "celebration of family" and also an ode to "the versatility of life itself, as well as the versatility of the Freestyle." Felice says he's received letters from "nontraditional families" thanking him for making the ad. And it really is nice to see a divorced family show up in a commercial. I hope it will start to happen more often. It's reality, and I've no doubt it's healthy for kids from broken homes to recognize themselves in the occasional TV ad.
Just not this ad. The wife invites her estranged husband along for a weekend with their kids? Won't that make the poor kids hope for a reconciliation? You'd better know what you're doing here, Mom! And while we see Dad's overnight bag, we don't see the inevitable argument over whether he and Mom will share a motel room. ("I can't even afford my own room with these alimony payments!"; "I told you this was about the kids, not us!"; "Emasculating witch!"; "Quiet, the children!" This is the sort of thing the ad leaves out.)
More important, the spot makes no sense as an enticement to buy a Freestyle. Get this car and perhaps your tattered marriage will segue into an amicable separation? Get this car because it's big enough to fit ex-spouses and a passel of half-siblings? The spot itself isn't sure what it wants to be, masquerading as a tale about the Freestyle's fuel capacity before it veers toward this tacked-on twist ending. As the ad fades out, the viewer is left confused, and yes, even a bit forlorn. I suppose that's a bold move for Ford, but is it a wise one?
Grade: B-. Bonus points for progressive social stance. Points off for muddled marketing message. By the way, the Freestyle is a "crossover" vehicle—a format that's become very hot of late. Crossover SUVs have the unibody, monocoque construction typical of a car, instead of the body-on-frame construction used in heavy-duty trucks. This lends the Freestyle a more "car-like driving experience, but with all the space of an SUV," says Felice. I look forward to the next logical step in this evolution: a return to the fricking station wagon. Seriously, what was wrong with those?
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.