Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ford: Idealized Mediocrity in Advertising

The number one marketing tool is a smiling face. People respond positively to happy, shiny people which is why so many ads feature shiny, happy, (and often semi-naked) people. Sex sells too.

Why would the Ford Motor Company defy this marketing rule and create a sad-sack advertisement featuring a divorced couple and their children? Slate (where I first saw this travesty of advertising) calls it: The Divorcemobile. Please go to this link, watch it, and tell me what you think. Here's the set-up:

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.

A couple things occurred to me with this ad:
  1. A woman's standard of living goes down after divorce, not up. The person likely living in what Slate article writer Seth Stevenson calls the "Recent Divorcé Condo Complex" would be the woman, not the man.
  2. Likewise, what recently divorced woman goes out and buys a new vehicle? She might buy a used minivan, but a hot new SUV? Puhleeeze. Unless she's divorcing Donald Trump, her immediate worry is getting her job skills polished because she either needs to move up professionally or prepare to enter the work world for the first time after many years out of it.
  3. The guy character is written completely pathetic. He mouths the words "thank you" to his teary wife. Alone and forlorn, he waves good-bye to his cherubic children. While this characterization might be accurate about the devastation divorce brings to families, is this devastation going to sell Fords? My association with the Ford Freestyle is misery. I don't need to buy that, there's enough misery in life as is, thank you very much.
  4. If there is that much love between these two people, why are they divorced? Along this lines, Stevenson says:
    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.)
Here is the meta-message though: don't hope for an ideal, settle for average. You're not a bad person just because you couldn't make it work. You're trying your best. Don't worry, everyone is like you. No one else is happy either.

It might be annoying to see all the happy couples portrayed in ads, but the advertisments are idealized versions of ourself. People don't like buying reality. They are living reality. Just like they don't like buying reality at the movie theater. People like happy endings.

Along the same lines, morbidly obese women don't sell clothing. Now, a healthy size 12 woman who is six feet tall might be considered a "plus-size model", but in real life she just looks normal. What I'm saying is that you don't put average, ugly, fat people in ads because people are buying an ideal. It's what they want. Most likely, it's what they want, because it is not what they have.

So, people buy a new car, home, clothes to redefine and glamorize their mediocre, average life. No one wants to buy a vehicle because it's "the vehicle of sad sack divorced people", do they? No one wants to buy a vehicle because it's what fat people, stupid people, ugly people buy, either.

They want to "Be Like Mike". (See if you can spot even one unhappy person in the ad. You just feel good watching it.) People want fun, like "It's more fun in a Mini." People what to be "it"--as in "Coke is It".

Sadness. Separation. Insecurity. Not the words I'd want associated with my product.

This Ford Ad reflects the morose grasping at survival that has set in at this struggling company. I can assure them, that where they see a socially cutting-edge contribution to the modern psyche, I see a company trying to portray divorce as some idealized "life choice" that is anything but to anyone involved.

I hope this isn't where advertising is going. It won't matter all that much to me. I rarely watch TV anymore anyway.


David said...

I'm guessing somebody at the agency convinced Ford that putting strong emotion into the ad would make it memorable. But "memorable" doesn't necessarily translate into selling cars.

It's often a challenge, when dealing with professionals in business, to ensure that they do stuff that will actually make money for the business rather than only develop their own careers in ways that are fun and professionally-challenging for them. This is true of advertising people, too.

Anonymous said...

This ad doesn't particularly make me want to buy this car. I don't have any feeling for it other than i am perplexed and that is not a good feeling either.

There's a liberal woman or a feminized man behind this ad. It's more a social message than an advertisement for a vehicle.

Christy're said...

I disagree; I think the point of this ad is not to be sad (divorce) but to point toward a happier, less-fighting divorce. So many divorced couples are incapable of being civil for the sake of the kids, and this Ford ad promotes that you COULD be a better person--for a weekend--if you buy this car.

I think most people in advertising assume divorce is a given nowadays. Now THAT is the sad part to me.

Dr. Melissa said...

But Christy,
Did anyone seem happy? I guess bumbling along the vacation road. So this ad was the "happy divorce" fantasy? Divorce, as you say, is a given, so enjoy!

Maybe the Dad was crying because he was being parted against his will from his beloved vehicle! Ha!

Christy're said...

Hmm, I don't think they seemed really *happy,* but they did seem pretty content, which is really something in a weekend together after a divorce. If divorce is a given, that commercial is a pretty lofty pipe dream.

Given the prevalence of divorce, I'd guess the return on this commercial will be pretty good. They're trying to brand "Bold" as Ford and as bold things go, inviting your ex for a weekend away and having it GO well is pretty darn bold.

Anonymous said...

One shouldn't have to devote that much thinking to a commercial. c

Anonymous said...

Well the fact that people are TALKING about it and arguing its merits shows that it WORKED.

Personally I liked it, I thought it was emotional and poignant not a "social message" or anything like that.