Ford On The Web, Warts And All

In place of banal car campaigns, an edgy site with an unvarnished docudrama approach

Documentary filmmaker Kathryn O'Kane and a film crew roved around a hall full of Ford auto workers. It was Oct. 10, and weeks earlier the employees had learned that their 81-year-old pickup truck plant in Norfolk, Va., would be shuttered at the end of next year. Not surprisingly, some of the workers the crew met were emotionally shattered. Others were hopeful, plotting career changes and going back to school on Ford Motor Co.'s (F ) buyout offer.

But O'Kane is not working for a news crew or an independent filmmaker. In a few weeks, footage of the workers she shot will find its way into the final edit of a short Internet film that Ford, her client, will post on The site, launched by the reeling automaker last June, contains films, articles, blogs, and message boards that promote Ford's vehicles and brand but also show some of its warts. The exercise, which tracks Ford's attempted turnaround, is an example of what Ty Montague, chief creative officer at Ford ad agency J. Walter Thompson (JWT ), refers to as "brand journalism."

The site came out of a charge President of the Americas Mark Fields gave his team and ad agency last December. He asked that, besides creating a new brand platform, they shift Ford's traditionalsome would say banalsales-driven advertising to something that would resonate even with Ford's critics. "Ford is an iconic brand, but to be a respected, authentic brand in the consumer's mind," says Field, it "needed to take a less varnished look" at itself, as consumers do.

Some of the Webisodes certainly do that. In one, titled Fist Full of Doubters, a Wall Street analyst discusses why he gave Ford shares a sell rating. In another, a Ford critic at the Rainforest Action Network states that "Ford has the worst fuel efficiency record of any automaker in America." A journalist's article posted on the site refers to a management "merry-go-round" and "insipid products."

Ford's paying for this? Joe Berlinger, who works for the production firm @Radical Media and who has directed some of the site's short films, says his team often has to convince suspicious employees that the film crew is working for the company. "There's real tension between promoting Ford's agenda and truthful storytelling," says Berlinger, who previously made a documentary about strained relationships in the rock band Metallica. Berlinger says he has been frustrated at times when higher-ups wouldn't grant him all the access he wanted and when they nixed his attempt to cover a boycott by the American Family Assn. over the company's support for gay media, a subject vetoed as straying too far from the turnaround theme.

The payoff for Ford in a more engaging image is hard to measure. But the Webisodes draw a lot of eyeballs. Ford says there were 1.2 million clicks from June 27 to Oct. 15, with 856,000 unique visitors who stayed for an average of eight minutes. The videos are available for use on blogs, 500 of which Ford monitors weekly. Several Webisodes simply chronicle the making of new Ford products, and Ford recently bought ad space to promote these films on 400 blogs.

The edgier approach is spilling over into Ford's TV ads. An ad for the Freestyle, an SUV-minivan crossover, features a family away for a weekend at the beach and ends with a surprise twist: The parents are divorced and Dad has been invited along. The ad has been a polarizing topic on blogs and in newspapers--exactly what Ford wants. Says independent marketing consultant Dennis Keene: "Engaging consumers about your products and creating stories around your brand that people talk about is a good thing, since most of Ford's marketing has long been wallpaper."

Ford's commissioning of a mini-documentary about the Norfolk closure was something plant manager Joseph Lee never would have expected, especially at such a tense time. So he was a skeptic. But taking part in the film had an unexpected effect: "Talking in front of the camera was therapeutic for me," says Lee.

@Radical Media's Berlinger smiles at hearing that comment. "The guys in Metallica said the same thing."

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