Ford has daring idea

A mom and dad joke with their kids as their Ford Freestyle winds through scenic terrain. They stop at a roadside stand for a snack. They frolic on a beach at sunset.

They look like the perfect, happy family until the Freestyle pulls into a condo complex and Dad gets out. "Thanks for inviting me this weekend," he tells his former wife. Dad gives his kids a heartfelt hug and waves as the Freestyle crossover vehicle pulls away.


A voiceover intones: "Bold moves: They happen every day."

The daring move here really belongs to Ford: showing a divorced couple in an advertising campaign.


Although millions of Americans have been divorced and millions of children no longer share an address with both parents, that truth is almost never reflected in the advertising that manufacturers and retailers use to woo consumers.

It's likely to stay that way, some marketers predict, because there is still a stigma attached to divorce, and most advertisers prefer to evoke images of happy nuclear families when pushing their products.

Others say the Freestyle ad has done exactly what it was supposed to do: create buzz and get people talking.

If Ford's risky move is deemed a success, they predict consumers will see more ads that show unconventional relationships - gay people, mixed-race couples, divorced parents, stepchildren.

"We don't live in the world of Ozzie and Harriet anymore," noted Alan Siegel, chairman of Siegel + Gale, a brand strategy firm in New York. "I think advertising has to reflect what is going on in society."

Yet, traditionally, advertising's primary purpose isn't to reflect society; it is to sell as many products as possible to the greatest number of people. The desire not to offend means that advertising has been slower than almost any other medium, including TV shows and movies, to mirror changes in popular culture.

When advertisers do craft a message for a subset of consumers, such as gays and lesbians, there is often a backlash among conservative groups that worry about the degradation of "family values." Even so, advertisers from Stolichnaya vodka to Volvo have gone much further in courting homosexuals than they ever have with divorced people.

Christie Nordhielm, associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, thinks she knows why. When advertisers appeal to gays and lesbians, for instance, the attention is generally welcomed by a group that often feels overlooked. But divorced people may not have the same reaction.


"It's trying to take advantage of an emotional hot button. I can see where it would upset some people," said Nordhielm. "I'm not saying we should leave [divorced people] out, but I don't see the strategic reason to put them in."

Ford marketing executive John Felice said the company wasn't trying to make a social statement with its divorce ad. Rather, it was trying to make an emotional connection with its customers. "It was about portraying a real-life situation," he said. "I've received passionate e-mails from divorced parents who said, 'Thank you.'"

The ad drew ire from some unhappy Ford dealers who don't understand why the company would show a negative situation in its advertising. The ad stopped airing at the end of September because it had run its course, Felice said. He declined to speculate whether it would appear again.

Ford Motor Co.'s "Bold Moves" campaign, created by J. Walter Thompson's Detroit office, comes at a time when the automaker has its back against the wall. Its sales have declined precipitously as it fights the perception among U.S. consumers that its cars are stodgy and less well made than those of its Japanese rivals. Ford reported a $5.8 billion quarterly loss last week.

Most of the "Bold Moves" spots are quirky but not controversial. The divorce spot stands out as more serious and provocative.

Only a minority of divorced couples end up with an amicable relationship when children are involved, divorce counselors say, and few would choose to spend an extended period of time with their ex in the close confines of a car.


Chicago divorce coach Kate van Dyke congratulates Ford for taking on a difficult topic and showing it with compassion. "I love the healthy role modeling going on there. Anything that can encourage the idea that you can be divorced and civil is a good thing to do."

But the spot struck veteran adman Tom McConnaughy as forced and a little sad. "I just didn't end up with a good feeling at the end of it. ... It didn't make me want to go out and buy a Ford."

At least one advertising executive says the Freestyle ad has achieved the Holy Grail of advertising: a spot that continues to work long after its 30 seconds of TV time have passed.

"That's the kind of promise we are making to our clients," said Steffan Postaer, chief creative officer at Euro RSCG Worldwide, a Chicago-based ad agency, and the creator of the "Curiously Strong" Altoids ad campaign.

"Around dinner tables, people will debate whether it was tacky or spot on. Whoever has the raw end of any given divorce may feel differently about that commercial. Parents may feel guilty about what they did with their kids. I see countless parents going to shrinks saying, 'I saw this commercial and it made me feel uncomfortable.' That's possible. That's worth money."

Susan Chandler writes for the Chicago Tribune.