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START THE PARTY: Ford is a master of wheels and image spin

June 13, 2003


When visitors experience Ford's 100th anniversary celebration this week, they'll take in a world of cars and trucks.

But they'll also absorb a message the auto giant has worked for years to convey: Ford is a company that cares about you, your family, the world.

On 152 acres outside its world headquarters, visitors enter a mythical Main Street under signs that read: "The Road is Ours," part of a Disney-like array of images, sounds and doctored photos that will last five days. You'll see this image often: an open road under a sunny blue sky, without a single other car in sight. No traffic, no exhaust fumes, just limitless possibility.

Think of it as a party with a point: Ford shares your values and dreams, your hopes and sense of American freedom.

But will their version of reality convince the public?

Some activists are using the centennial as a platform to highlight what they see as Ford's unfriendly environmental policies, especially on gas mileage in its vehicles. And others are questioning Ford's spin -- recounted often -- of how it handled the 1999 explosion at the Ford Rouge power plant that killed six workers. For critics, the image of Ford as a benevolent business is a myth, fashioned out of the cloth of public relations.

Who's right is unclear.

What is certain is that Ford is a business that works just as hard at constructing images as constructing autos.

Since its beginning, Ford's public facade has been an integral part of its success. "Its greatest asset," wrote historian David Lewis about the early years of Ford "was the vast amount of goodwill which the industrialist enjoyed among the masses."

The company's founder, Henry Ford, was a master of public relations, one of the most skilled self-advertisers of the 20th Century. He charmed reporters, often embellishing or making up anecdotes for them, and became the most written-about private citizen during the 1920s.

"History is more or less bunk," Ford famously once told a Chicago reporter. But Ford would create Greenfield Village to display his version of history, a version that at times distorted the truth if it made for a good story -- like the test tube that Ford said contained Edison's last breath.

Today, the founder's persona is still an integral part of the company's image. One Ford magazine ad shows him next to a car made up partly of soybean-plastic. He was "a passionate environmentalist," says Bill Ford Jr., Henry's great-grandson and current CEO, in a letter next to the photo. "He didn't just want Ford Motor Co. to make cars. He wanted us to make a difference."

That idea is echoed by many in Ford's upper management.

"We're a company that from the beginning has been inextricably linked to the communities we live in," said Jan Valentic, vice president of global marketing at Ford. "It's about making this a better world."

For some observers, though, Ford is doing just the opposite by selling gas-guzzling SUVs and lobbying Congress not to change gas-mileage standards. And they point out that Ford's Rouge complex was the prime reason why the Rouge River became one of the dirtiest rivers in the country.

"There's a gap between the rhetoric and reality," said Frank Ambrose, a 28-year-old Detroit carpenter who plans to join other protesters Saturday in a rally across from Ford World Headquarters. "They produced the Excursion, which has the worst gas mileage of any automobile.

Ambrose admits that Ford is trying to remake the Rouge complex into an environmentally friendly center, but he adds that the place produced so much pollution "there's nowhere to go but up." On Thursday, activistssaid Ford is cleaning the Rouge only because of federal mandates under the Clean Water Act.

The groups sponsoring the protest -- Global Exchange and Rainforest Action Network -- unveiled a new campaign Wednesday to get flag-waving country star Toby Keith to dump Ford sponsorship of his concerts. They claim that Keith, who appears in commercials for Ford trucks, is being unpatriotic by supporting Ford and oil dependency.

Last week, the Sierra Club announced it will run print ads saying that Ford's old Model T got better gas mileage than its modern Explorer.

But officials aren't worried.

"I believe strongly there will be so much celebration going on about Ford that we're going to stay focused," said Lew Echlin, Ford truck advertising manager.

Echlin, who helps market Ford's image, says the auto company is committed to freedom and family values.

Indeed, Ford will stress that theme often at the centennial.

"Thanks for being part of our extended family," says the recorded voice of Edsel Ford II, Henry's great-grandson, as visitors complete a journey on a Model T through Ford's history.

A new book on Ford Motor Co., "Wheels for the World," further strengthens the view that the Ford company treats others like family with its depiction of how Ford responded to the explosion at the Rouge power plant in 1999. Based on interviews with Bill Ford Jr., the book's author, Douglas Brinkley, writes that the younger Ford was at the scene "digging through rubble."

All agree he was near the plant that day, talking to reporters who sought comment. But workers at the plant, fire officials, and state reports doubt that he was there digging through rubble. There really wasn't any rubble to dig through. Moreover, only fire officials and emergency crews were working at the scene.

Some plant workers have long thought that officials may have exaggerated Ford's efforts to help out for publicity reasons -- the story was repeated in journalistic accounts, including a front-page story in Fortune magazine.

"I don't trust them," said Terry Cline, a former welder from Ford who worked in the power plant. Cline and other workers said they told Bill Ford Jr. about plant problems shortly after the explosion. But later, the company stalled state investigators from discovering that it had ignored safety problems for years. Ford spokesman Niel Golightly, who was with the chairman for part of the day of the explosion, said he doesn't recall him digging, but said that he decided quickly to go the scene after hearing of the blast. Bill Ford Jr. also made sure it was "fully investigated," Golightly said.

Despite the Rouge incident, there's no denying that Ford Motor Co. remains popular with many of its employees.

Last week, hundreds craned their necks upward and cheered as the company unveiled its new blue oval logo -- a return to an older logo -- atop headquarters.

Bill Ford Jr. said at the event:

"Frankly, it's back where God intended it to be."

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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