Make Ford Great Again

Blunt and regressive, Ford’s new TV commercials make do without jingles or CEOs, opting instead for Breaking Bad’s scary-manly-paternal (don’t forget Malcolm in the Middle) Bryan Cranston. Dressed in Steve Jobs gear, Cranston is on the verge of delivering a “Future Talk” when he shakes it off at the last minute: “The future wasn’t made in a keynote speech,” he declares. (Presumably this includes Jim Hackett’s keynote speech about Ford’s future.) Next he’s in an easy chair aboard Air Force One: “A presidential speech did not land us on the moon.” Cut to men with pocket protectors sweating over the Apollo Lunar Lander. “Millions of man hours did.”

For now, yesterday is where the money is.

Eighteen months ago Ford Motor Company suddenly fired its CEO and replaced him with a turnaround artist who made his name cutting twelve thousand jobs to rescue Steelcase, the office furniture maker. The markets and analysts cheered his appointment. Mark Fields, Ford’s outgoing CEO, had been moving too slowly to reposition the company for an automotive future of mobility-as-a-service provided by electrified, driverless cars.

The new CEO, Jim Hackett, speaks the language of Silicon Valley and the new mobility. As a member of Ford’s board, Hackett had overseen the formation of the Ford Smart Mobility subsidiary and was known for sending colleagues links to TED talks in his emails. At his keynote address for this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, he described growing up in central Ohio when Interstate 70 opened and replaced a “bumpy road called Route 40.” The highway generated economic growth, comfortable homes, and better access to healthcare and education. “And yet, over time . . . parking lots overtook the . . . town squares,” he lamented. Drive-throughs displaced family-owned diners and new houses displaced farms. The average American meal now travels “1,500 miles from farm to table.” Interstates and gas guzzlers are the past. The future Hackett says, is something called “City Tomorrow,” and its centerpiece is the “Living Street.” Ford Smart Mobility bought robotics company Argo AI for $1 billion and spent another $100 million on a shared electric scooter company called Spin, because “micro-mobility” is all the rage. Last month Ford announced that starting next year it will begin delivering groceries and sundries by autonomous vehicle for Walmart.

Earlier this year Hackett announced that Ford would boost its profit margins to 8 percent by 2020 and have forty new electrified vehicles on the road by 2022.1 Those deadlines slipped, as did earnings—off 37 percent in the third quarter of 2018—and the stock price, down 20 percent since Hackett took over. Perhaps the new CEO has a trick up his sleeve that he will unleash on shareholders and journalists in 2019. But it’s also possible that the shift from Ford Smart Mobility to running the whole show has forced him to come to terms with Ford’s real value: the pickup truck.

“Ford, more than any other brand, is a truck brand—a pickup truck brand,” AutoTrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs told the Detroit Free Press in June. The occasion for the comment was Ford’s announcement that it would stop selling cars—with the exception of an iconic, low-volume muscle car, the Mustang. For Ford it’s trucks all the way down. The F-150 pickup truck has been the bestselling vehicle in the US for thirty-five years and earns the company ten thousand dollars of profit per vehicle. The F-150’s fuel economy tops out at twenty-two miles per gallon on the EPA’s combined city/highway test; in most configurations the trucks struggle to hit twenty miles to the gallon, and the larger F-250s are so thirsty that the EPA doesn’t dare rate them. And while the Mustang convertibles that live in airport rental car lots make twenty-three miles per gallon, a true muscle-car version only hits nineteen. Those sound more like yesterday’s fuel economy numbers than tomorrow’s. But, for now, yesterday is where the money is.

Hackett is walking a tightrope, promising the capital markets plenty of future-y stuff while continuing to sell people what they actually want right now: big, luxurious machines that are cheap to drive when gas is below two dollars a gallon. Although F-150s can top seventy thousand dollars, the pickup retains the Model T’s reputation as an honest machine of the American heartland. “As a vehicle, it was hard working, commonplace, heroic and it often seemed to transmit those qualities to the persons who rode in it,” E. B. White wrote of Henry Ford’s Model T in 1936. So it is—or at least so it seems—with the F-150.

The Model T made Ford the richest man in the world and transformed his company into a globe-straddling colossus. Henry straddled the globe, too. His name was in the papers two to three times a week, and the world hung on his every pronouncement. He railed against globalists, internationalists, and the mainstream media. “The Press and the Bankers Got Us Into War,” a New York Times headline quoted Ford as saying in 1919. In the 1930s he was known as the “Mussolini of Dearborn,” a moniker he wore with pride. In 1938, two months before Kristallnacht, the German consul traveled from Cleveland to Detroit to bestow the Grand Cross of the German Eagle on the great man.

Now, as neo-Mussolinis stomp across the world stage, Ford Motor Company has unveiled “Built Ford Proud,” an ad campaign that tries to follow Hackett’s lead down the tightrope. “If you can’t build with pride,” a full-page newspaper ad warns, “don’t build at all.” So far so anodyne. But then the ad pivots away from motivational management speak, toward paranoia. “For some reason, people spend more time pointing out what’s wrong with the world than being proud of what’s right with it.” Wait, what? “But our company and the best parts of the world it serves weren’t built on the backs of finger-pointers.” Emphasis mine, but after two years under a President who attacks African American football players for kneeling and Central American babies for yearning to be free, all while praising white supremacists, this kind of thing hardly needs demystification.

The last time Detroit’s automakers took such an aggressive us-versus-them tack was in the 1980s, when superior Japanese imports were eating their lunch and Ronald Reagan was rekindling cold war embers. “For us!” sang Ford’s commercials for its new mainline sedan, hitting the high notes, “Now there’s an American car that has exactly what we’ve been looking for. Taur-us!” Lee Iacocca, Chrysler’s flamboyant chairman, starred in a series of boastful ads in which he declared: “When you’ve been kicked in the head like we have, you learn to put first things first. Next year, we will build a small car right here in America with quality that we’re determined will beat the Japanese at their own game.” In those days, every executive in Detroit knew the dog-whistle.

Blunt and regressive, Ford’s new TV commercials make do without jingles or CEOs, opting instead for Breaking Bad’s scary-manly-paternal (don’t forget Malcolm in the Middle) Bryan Cranston. Dressed in Steve Jobs gear, Cranston is on the verge of delivering a “Future Talk” when he shakes it off at the last minute: “The future wasn’t made in a keynote speech,” he declares. (Presumably this includes Jim Hackett’s keynote speech about Ford’s future.) Next he’s in an easy chair aboard Air Force One: “A presidential speech did not land us on the moon.” Cut to men with pocket protectors sweating over the Apollo Lunar Lander. “Millions of man hours did.” This being the post–Hidden Figures age in which even reactionary content must have an inclusive sheen, we get one African American woman conferring with the white male engineers over the blueprints. Her colleagues have period-correct tie clips and watches, while she’s costumed as a Pullman porter or a waitress from the Bloomfield Hills Country Club.

Next we’re in Afghanistan, looking over the shoulder of a soldier watching the ground explode in fire, rock, and dust. His mirrored sunglasses reflect an instant stereoscopic replay. Only in the context of the next shots did I realize this wasn’t Afghanistan and that the man wasn’t a soldier. The sequence actually depicts a heroic strip-mining operation. Cut to coal miners, steel workers, and other manly men turning natural resources into engine blocks. In the last frames, Cranston is behind the wheel of a black-on-black F-150 Raptor (16 MPG), kicking up sand as he rumbles through the desert. The Wagnerian exhaust note feathers perfectly into the soundtrack, an instrumental version of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.”

In another ad, pickups—ranging from vintage models to those now in showrooms—run four wide and handsome on an arrow-straight desert highway. Their beds and trailers haul cargo of the nostalgic variety: a Bob’s Big Boy statue, a Christmas float for a small-town holiday parade. The convoy rides to a strumming banjo and Jerry Reed’s twanging out the theme from Smokey and the Bandit, the 1979 blockbuster comedy. “The boys are thirsty in Atlanta and there’s beer in Texarkana,” Reed sings, so we’re truckin’ it home, “no matter what it takes.” “Whatever party you got going in the back, we got the business up front,” Cranston intones, implying that the boys in Atlanta like beer, they really like beer. Off on the horizon, blurred by the desert heat, spins Hackett’s vision of the future: a Texas-sized wind farm. The future may be close at hand, but the forty-year-old soundtrack and truck beds loaded down with Americana say that Ford will deal with it when it gets here—and not a moment sooner.

It is easy to watch these ads and think they are for and about unreconstructed gas-guzzling climate deniers who live in the sticks. Alas, to those who live in the city, regularly take Uber, and buy organic, Bryan Cranston says Ford has your number, too. We open on a static shot of a parking space along the curb of a scrubbed city street. There’s a stand of fresh veggies and good pedestrian traffic. Steam billows from one of those orange and white striped chimneys set over a manhole, so we’re probably in New York, or a back-lot simulacrum. But wait, the space isn’t available—it’s taken up by three orange construction barrels. No matter, Cranston says conspiratorially, the Ford Escape is a car small enough to parallel park in the city. But it’s also “the car you want when you want an SUV.” Sure enough, the Escape muscles those barrels right out of its way. Out pops a slender woman on her way to yoga class. The once pristine urban scene is dominated by a black SUV caked with mud, under the words, “Built Ford Proud.”

The “Built Ford Proud” campaign reflects more purely than advertising usually does the pickle Ford finds itself in. In fact, all of Detroit faces the same challenge: bridge the gap between the human-driven, internal-combustion present and the autonomous, electrified future. When erstwhile drivers spend the commute to work answering work emails, Hackett wants them doing so in electric Fords. A shift this transformative requires an equally transformative amount of cash, which is especially hard to come by today, at a time of global manufacturing overcapacity and requirements for new power trains. That’s why GM CEO Mary Barra has announced that her company will cut eighteen thousand jobs and close seven North American plants over the next year. She has abandoned Russia, India, and sold off GM’s Opel unit, exiting Europe. Meanwhile, the company has spent $1 billion on a driverless car company, invested half a billion in Lyft, and bought up the assets of the defunct third-place ride hailer Sidecar. Fiat Chrysler will sell 62,000 minivans to Google for a self-driving taxi service. And yet GM’s and Fiat Chrysler’s bestselling vehicles are, like Ford’s, pickup trucks—the Chevy Silverado and the Dodge Ram, respectively.

For all the keynote speeches and commercials about connected cities and new cars powered by wind turbines, those things (or, more precisely, the business model for those things) have not yet come into view. The trick will be getting from here to there. In 1925, Henry Ford produced two million Model Ts—his third straight two-million car year. His son Edsel begged him to plan for the future, to introduce a new model that could compete with the Chevrolet. Buyers no longer wanted the robust but cantankerous, ugly, and uncomfortable Model T when, for just a bit more, they could buy a smooth and colorful new car from General Motors. But the Mussolini of Detroit was not known for taking advice. Because he wouldn’t acknowledge the future, the largest and richest automaker in the world fell to a distant second place behind GM and has never recovered. Ford Motor hired Jim Hackett because he can see the future. His challenge will be to carry the business there in an F-150 while we all party in the back.

  1. Many journalists took this to mean forty new electric vehicles, but “electrified” refers to hybrids. 

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