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Ford reads the culture right with new coronavirus response advertising

The carmaker replaces its scheduled March Madness ads with two new spots about its car payment relief program.

Ford reads the culture right with new coronavirus response advertising
[Photo: Caleb White/Unsplash; GDJ/Pixabay]

Beyond the obvious health concerns that surround the current coronavirus outbreak, there are also significant economic consequences to the new realities of working from home, paid (or unpaid) sick leave, and social distancing. People aren’t buying as much stuff. People are getting laid off. Despite government reassurances, the anxiety of closed businesses and lost employment and wages weighs heavy on millions of people.

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This is not the time for a peppy car ad.

As a major March Madness advertiser, Ford was getting ready to ramp up ongoing campaigns for its Escape and Explorer models during the college basketball tourney as well as a significant media buy across scripted TV and news. But last week, the brand decided to change tack and worked quickly with its ad agency Wieden + Kennedy New York to create two new ads around providing Ford Credit customers some breathing room around their car payments. With taglines like “Built to Lend a Hand” and “Built for Right Now,” the spots also remind us how the company has weathered crises in the past.

One of the more common mantras of modern marketing is that in order to create work that resonates with people and becomes a part of culture, brands first need to know their own place in that culture. Here, Ford is recognizing that cars are one of the biggest, most significant purchases that people make, and consequently, are often their second-biggest monthly bill after rent or a mortgage. Instead of offering an empty kumbaya sentiment, the brand is using actual IRL measures to help its customers.

Ford’s director of U.S. marketing Matt VanDyke told AdAge that the company decided on the new approach last Thursday, recognizing that its typical ads weren’t going to work. “It’s important to be reassuring right now and not trying to say to people ‘Rush into your car dealership for a sales event.'” he said.

Advertising is so often about creating a fantasy world, one that favors the aspirational over the rational, that it’s actually refreshing—even a bit jarring—when a brand chooses to anchor its message in a sober reality. This move isn’t without precedent in auto ads. For the 2009 Super Bowl, while other car brands were jumping through the usual big game ad hoops, Hyundai decided to focus on the recession-sized elephant in the room with a spot called “Contract.” Made by agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners and narrated by Jeff Bridges, it focused on the carmaker’s Assurance program, telling prospective customers that if they “finance or lease any new Hyundai, and if you lose your income in the next year, you can return it with no impact on your credit.”

The move was credited with boosting Americans’ consideration for new Hyundai vehicles by 59%, according to CNW Marketing Research.

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We’re living in largely uncharted waters—social distancing, states of emergency—and part of dealing with that will be brands finding a way to exist, operate, and communicate in ways that offer one of some combination of help, hope, and entertainment.

Here, Ford clearly chose the right roadmap to claim at least two of those.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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