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January 15, 2004


Like playground tough guys kicking dust at each other, Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG are trading advertising volleys over whose pickup truck is more powerful -- the new Ford F-150 or the Hemi-powered Dodge Ram.

Each company is running TV ads that show an F-150 and Ram 2500 side-by-side, each hauling a vintage muscle car. In the Ford spot, the trucks take off and the F-150 leaves the Ram in the dust. In the Dodge ad -- surprise! -- the reverse happens.

This battle over which company's stud truck is studlier is a great example of how important power has become to consumers -- and the automakers.

Comparing performance or taste or size of one product vs. another has been a staple of TV ads ever since cola drinks, laundry soaps and television have coexisted. What's different about this Ford-Dodge tiff is that Ford, the market leader, started it by picking on Dodge, No. 3 in the U.S. truck market. Usually such claims are made by industry laggards.

What's not in dispute is that raw power -- power enough to pull elephants at speeds way beyond legal -- is a huge selling point for many drivers.

Indeed, DaimlerChrysler's success with the resurrection of Hemi engines in 2002 was the precursor of today's ad wars with Ford. The V8 Hemi was a legendary racing and muscle car engine during the 1950s and '60s. It was retired in 1971 because of poor emissions, but a cleaned-up Hemi returned in 2002 with the launch of new Ram Super Duty pickups.

That's when the first of three humorous ads featuring loopy characters asking the now-familiar question, "That thing got a Hemi?" appeared. Dodge is also offering a Hemi engine in the 2004 Durango sport-utility vehicle and in the soon-to-debut 300C sedan.

"The Hemi has been a home run for us," Chrysler Group Chief Operating Officer Wolfgang Bernhard said.

Last summer, as Ford prepared to launch its new 2004 F-150 pickups, the company was mulling ad messages, said Todd Eckert, the F-150 marketing manager. It wanted to promote attributes including its quiet ride to its towing power.

Eckert said Ford decided to spoof Chrysler's Hemi ads to make a point about F-150 power and Ford's legacy in trucks.

In the Ford ad, an F-150 driver hauling a vintage Mustang pulls alongside a Ram 2500 hauling an old Dodge Charger and asks, "That thing got a Hemi?" When the light turns green, the F-150 pulls quickly away and the Ford driver glances back at the Dodge through his rearview mirror.

Noting the rich racing history of the Hemi engine, Eckert said, "We have quite a bit of heritage too -- 55 years of the F-series, the best-selling truck. And we have unsurpassed low-end torque. We will pull faster from a dead stop, which is what towing is all about."

Eckert said Ford considered the downside of giving free airtime to a smaller competitor -- 449,000 Ram pickups were sold in 2003 vs. 845,000 F-series trucks -- but decided to make the ad for Ford dealer groups to use anyway.

Julie Roehm's first reaction to the Ford ad was, "Gee, it's really great when the No. 1 company names the product of the No. 3 company in their ad, and they even used our line about Hemi that we'd been touting and trying to imprint in the public's mind.

"The bad thing was that they were trying to show us up . . . It hurt our pride because we didn't think that would really happen," said Roehm, marketing communications manager for Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands.

For a retort ad, released in December, Dodge hired independent testing firm AMCI to race the F-150 against the Ram 2500 with each pulling cars like those in Ford's commercial. Dodge's ad claims the Ram, powered by a 345-horsepower Hemi, beat the F-150 with a 300-horsepower Triton engine 280 times in a row in a 0-60-m.p.h. test done by AMCI.

Ford claims it's an apples-to-oranges comparison, that its ad was meant to show off the F-150's prowess at towing a big load from a dead stop due to its low-end torque, while the Dodge ad simulates a drag race where the higher-horsepower Hemi engine could have an advantage.

If you think Ford and Dodge are pumped up for this spat, just wait awhile. Now that Nissan has launched its first full-size pickup, and Toyota is showing a huge new truck concept, the macho air wars may only be beginning.

Houston, Texas
9 Posts
Nice report and well written.
BTW, My 04 F-150 Lariat (5.4) Crew cab has slaughtered a few HEMIs.
Eric Y.
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