If you were a regular reader of the New York Times, the ads were hard to miss — a full-page caricature of Ford Motor Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer William Clay Ford Jr. as Pinocchio.
The ads were sponsored by the Bluewater Network, www.bluewaternetwork.org, a coalition of smaller environmental groups from the Western United States and Canada. The organization attacked Ford for reneging on its promise to boost the mileage of its sport-utility vehicles. “Don’t buy his environmental rhetoric. Don’t buy his cars,” the ad copy said. It also urged consumers to boycott not only Ford but also Volvo, Mazda, Jaguar, and Land Rover vehicles. The same group also sued to block the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.
Despite the Pinnocchio ad’s relatively limited distribution, it still touched a nerve at Ford. Brenda Hines, a Ford spokeswoman, confirmed the company had sent a letter to the Bluewater Network, asking them to cease and desist. The point is it was a personal attack on Bill Ford, Hines said. In addition, the organization had misused Ford’s blue-oval trademark on its Web site. “Your personal attacks on Bill Ford are gratuitous and offensive, well beyond the scope of responsible and civil public dialogue,” read a letter that Ford’s legal team sent to Bluewater.
The attack on the chairman hit Ford in a sensitive spot, since the automaker is trying to utilize to reputation as a family company to bolster its image as it rebuilds in the wake of the Ford Explorer-Firestone tire debacle. Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, personifies the family tradition and he is considered critical to the effort, which is just getting organized, according to some recent reports.
The Bluewater ad also included an appeal for more money to pay for additional advertising — a not-uncommon tactic in politically oriented campaigns.
Ford officials acknowledged the company has had to retreat from the bold commitment first outlined by Jac Nasser in the summer of 2001 to boost fuel economy in its SUVs by 25 percent. The company, however, is working hard to bring make vehicles such as the hybrid Escape as well as low-emission PZEV vehicles. And Bill Ford has said he continues to want the company to be seen as a leader in environmental technology.
Meanwhile, mainline environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, declined to participate in the attack on Bill Ford. Dan Becker, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, said the Sierra Club did not believe in personal attacks were productive. The Sierra Club did pay for an ad critical of the Ford Motor Co. during the company’s centennial in 2003, he noted. The ad compared the technology from 100 years ago and then noted that the fuel economy of Ford's original cars was substantially better than it is today, he noted.
Ford officials, meanwhile, clearly hope the controversy will die away.