Ford Auto Ad Not Cat's Meow

  |  April 20, 2004   |  Comments

Ford disavows authorizing an ad for the Sportka hatchback that depicts a computer-generated cat being decapitated.

A viral ad campaign for the Ford Motor Co.'s Sportka that shows a cat's head being sliced off by the car's sunroof has been disavowed by both Ford and the ad agency that created it.

The ad promotes the Sportka, a small two-door hatchback sold in the U.K. and geared toward consumers in their twenties. Ogilvy & Mather of London created the :40 video for Ford as an Internet-only email ad. But, both companies say, it was never meant to be aired.

The ad generated protests from animal rights activists in the UK when it first appeared in early April. Ford disowned the ad, saying it had been rejected as too extreme and was "totally unacceptable and reprehensible."

In the spot, the Sportka is parked in a driveway. A ginger cat appears, and the car's sunroof slides open. The cat jumps up on the hood to investigate and pokes its head into the sunroof, which closes, beheading the cat.

Like recent campaigns such as Burger King's Web site featuring aSubservient Chicken, viral marketing seeks to attract younger audiences resistant to more conventional advertising. Often, such ads are unconventional. The Subservient Chicken depicts a human decked in a chicken suit obeying users' commands. But the Ford campaign apparently went too far.

"They were trying to do the same thing [Burger King's] chicken did, trying to be edgy and push the envelope, but they pushed too hard," said Marc Schiller, CEO of ElectricArtists, a New York City viral marketing agency. Schiller applauded the Subservient Chicken site, as well as a recent offbeat, Web-only four-minute video ad featuring Jerry Seinfeld and an animated Superman promoting American Express.

"Young people are very savvy and their medium of choice is the Internet. And when brands get it right on new media, they respond. You saw that with the Subservient Chicken. The tonality was perfect," Schiller said.

"Perhaps the Ford execution wasn't as perfect." (Though it in fact depicted an execution, at least of the cat.)

"Ultimately I dont think it's good for the brand," Schiller said of the Ford ad, though "I wouldn't go so far as to say it's going to negatively affect car sales."

The ad has generated international buzz. It's being discussed in blogs and on online forums, including CanadianDriver.com, a Canadian online automotive magazine, where opinions are mixed.

According to Schiller, such attention does not constitute viral marketing success.

"There's a lot of interest in the commercials, but people aren't emailing them back and forth. The real value of viral marketing comes when one person transfers their endorsement of it, their passion for it, to their target of the right person to receive it," Schiller said.

Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief at online car site Edmunds.com, said, "There's still a learning curve going on with the Internet. A lot of the larger companies are trying to understand what it's all about."

Schiller said Ford and Ogilvy at least deserve kudos for trying.

"People have got to make mistakes to allow things to progress. The first one in the door usually gets shot and it's usually unfair because they're the ones pushing things forward," Schiller maintained. "The fact that Ford was thinking in this direction ultimately is good for everybody."

Perhaps viral campaigns should simply give injured cats a rest. An Australian Nokia spot was similarly disavowed by the advertiser last year. In it, a cat was snagged on a ceiling fan, twirled, and was flung against a wall.

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Janis Mara

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