Heat in the Driver’s Seat -Ford Apologizes for Tasteless Ads

Ford made headlines recently, but not in the most positive light.  The car manufacturer received some bad press and criticism for a series of ads that were seen as offensive and violent against women.  The ad campaign was created by J. Walter Thompson (JWT), their advertising agency in India.  As The Wall Street Journal and other news outlets report, “Ford did not approve the ads; the agency was publishing some speculative renderings to show off its creative chops” (Memmott, 2013).  The ads are for the Ford Figo; a model that is known for having a spacious trunk.  Three ads have circulated, one that features former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one that features Paris Hilton, and another with Formula One driver Michael Schumacher.  All three figures appear in the front seat of the Figo, while three other characters are featured in the trunk tied, gagged and stuffed in the trunk of the car.  The ads tag line “Leave your worries behind with Figo’s extra large boot” (Memmott, 2013).

Ford Ad-1 Ford Ad-2 Ford Ad-3

Immediately Ford followers took to social media outlets to criticize the company.  One woman said on Ford’s Facebook page: “Your company is a disgrace to publish such a vulgar and violent ad against women. You will never get our business. Shame on you!” (Facebook, 2013).  Last December a young woman in India was raped and murdered, allegedly by five men.  The incident sparked an international uproar about violence against women (NPR, 2013).

Even though Ford has said the ads were not approved for public distribution, they have been exposed globally! I find the ads offensive and tasteless. It’s a misuse of creativity and shines a bad light on the advertising industry as a whole.  Furthermore I am alarmed that given the recent news in India surrounding rape, JWT’s Indian affiliate would create such a grotesque campaign.  While JWT’s parent company WPP Plc, based in London, has apologized for the ads, I was unable to find a formal apology or message on their website.  As we have learned so far this semester, creating a successful and effective ad campaign takes a lot of effort and research. But I wonder, what were the conversations during the creation of these ads? What ‘big idea’ were they trying to convey?

Even though these ads did not go public, is this an acceptable form of creative expression?


Welsh, J. (2013, March 23). Ford Apologizes for Offensive ‘Berlusconi’ Figo Ads. Wall   Street Journal. Retrieved March 25, 2013 from http://blogs.wsj.com/drivers-seat/2013/03/23/ford-apologizes-for-offensive-berlusconi-figo-ads/

Memmott, M. (2013, March 25). Ford Sorry For Mocked-up Ads in India Showing Bound and Gagged Women. NPR News. Retrieved March 25, 2013 from http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/03/25/175251760/ford-sorry-for-mocked-up-ads-in-india-showing-bound-and-gagged-women

Philip, S. (2013, March 25). Ford Apologizes After Mock Ads of Berlusconi Tying Up Women. Bloomberg. Retrieved March 25, 2013 from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-03-25/ford-apologizes-after-mock-ads-of-berlusconi-tying-up-women.html

NPR (2013, February 2). In India, Men Accused of Deadly Rape Formally Charged. Retrieved March 25, 2013, from http://www.npr.org/2013/02/02/170947140/in-india-men-accused-of-deadly-rape-formally-charged

J. Walter Thompson. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.jwt.com/jwtdelhi

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13 Responses to Heat in the Driver’s Seat -Ford Apologizes for Tasteless Ads

  1. melrlawson says:

    Hi Allison,
    The first thing that comes to mind is what was Ford thinking?! Although the ads were not intendended to be released (according to Ford) they have to know that once something is down on paper there is always the risk of it being released to the public. I am also shocked that there was not a formal apology issued by Ford. Do you think their sales will be impacted? I also haven’t seen the ads on any social media sites, but am curious if you have or if others have. It seems like once something like that hits Facebook, it’s all over.
    – Melanie

    • Allison Cordova says:

      Hi Melanie,

      Thanks for your comment. From the news reports I read, it seems that Ford and JWT’s parent company did release an apology, but I couldn’t find anything on JWT’s website. I’m not sure how the sales will be impacted. On Facebook, several people have said they will stop buying Ford. It would be interesting to see how well the Ford Figo does in India. I haven’t seen the ads on any social media sites, but they’re not hard to find online due to the controversy.

  2. kristen.mercure says:

    Hi Allison,

    How horrible! What was this agency thinking? I’d imagine they’ve now been axed, as they’ve put Ford in a dangerous position. The worst part is that even if/when they fire the agency, Ford still has to deal with the backlash. This is an excellent example of how important it is to receive client approval before making anything public.

    Thank you,
    CMGT 541a

    • Allison Cordova says:

      Hi Kristen,

      I agree, Ford will have to deal with serious damage control! Ford claims they did not approve the ads … like you, I would say that an oversight of this magnitude should make Ford considered ending ties with the agency. Thanks for your reply.

  3. lweekley says:

    Wow! These ads are in extremely poor taste. One wonders how exactly this happened. Were these concept sketches shown to Ford, rejected, and released anyway? Or were they early concepts that never made it in front of Ford? I’m sure it’s happened, but I can’t remember when I’ve seen an agency publicize material off the cutting room floor before. I wonder if Ford can/will take legal action against the agency.

    I’m not entirely sure I understand the connection between this misguided campaign and the recent, well-publicized rape case in India, though. I realize there is increased dialogue about violence against women in India right now, but I sure hope Ford customers would find these ads tasteless regardless of what was in the news.

    • Allison Cordova says:

      Hi there,

      I’m not certain on any plans to take the agency to court. Ford claims they did not approve the ads, which makes me think they never saw any sketches ..I’m not sure we’ll ever know! I used the example of the rape case in India to highlight even more how tactless the agency’s decision was to create this campaign. I agree the ads remain vulgar regardless of the context surrounding them, or the location. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Hannah Martine says:

    This was a great post, Allison. Thank you for sharing. At first glance, the ads are extremely offensive, especially when you don’t immediately recognize who the characters are supposed to be. Unfortunately, once the viewer understands the cultural references to the images, the don’t get much better. In the case of the Paris Hilton ad, she’s put the Kardashian sisters in the trunk — I assume because they’ve taken over as the A-list reality celebrities. While clever in the idea of the ad, the message is lost because it’s too complicated to understand at first glance. JWT broke the cardinal rule of Make It Stick: Keep it Simple. These ads are asking the reader to process more information in a short amount of time than they’re able to.

    I would also say that the race car driver image isn’t necessarily violent against women, but just a bit violent in general. The idea of binding and gagging anybody, male or female, and putting them in a trunk is not a good premise for an ad campaign.

    You’re right, Allison, in wondering what the agency was thinking. While we’re looking at these ads from an American perspective, I can’t imagine a culture where these ads are appropriate, especially given the recent violence against women in India. Was this really the best idea the agency had?!


  5. Allison Cordova says:

    Hi Hannah,

    You bring up some excellent points about the ads. I would agree they’re complicated to understand, in addition to their violent undertone. Thinking of men and women being stuffed in a trunk of a car is definitely not something I would ever think of using, to sell something! Thanks for your insightful thoughts.

  6. waterwor says:

    Hello Allison,

    Great post! I agree with Hannah that the message that the audience immediately gets is not a postive one and does not immediately express the “wit” or intended cultural references of the ad. The ad is in poor taste and I think that this exemplifies how much farther society has to go on issues that pertain to violence (esp. against women). Ford is overall a great American Company…hopefully they can find a way to redeem themselves from these horrible ads.

  7. milissa_douponce says:

    Allison, really great post- holy mackeral! The decorum of this blog prevents me from commenting on the Ford ads in a constructive manner but what comes to mind starts with A and ends with holes. -Milissa

  8. guia says:

    Hi Allison,

    Great post! I hadn’t seen new circulating around these ads but they are certainly a conversation piece. Initially, I laughed at the ads. To think that someone would pitch the big idea as how many people you can fit in the trunk!

    I really don’t see a valid defense from the agency side here. When working with major clients (or any client) I thought it was understood that NOTHING is released until it has final client approval. If that ad agency wants a way to show their creative chops – there is another way.

    The ads are tasteless and only make Ford look bad. I’ll be curious to see how much longer that agency sticks around.

    Again, great job!

  9. jhuck says:

    Hi Allison,

    I have to agree with Hannah’s post.. the ads are too confusing to understand, so Ford now finds itself having to apologize for an ad that never ran, was offensive, and was too convoluted.
    From a 502 perspective, they should have reached out better on its Facebook page… making it clear this was an ad agency thing and they would never have run the ad. I can’t remember … but didn’t we read a case study where another company was in a similar situation with its ad agency?
    There are better ways to communicate the advantages of the trunk space.. maybe have college kids pack the car like they always do to set a record and show how more kids can fit in the trunk? Or a suburban dad hiding his golf clubs from the wife, while holding a to-do list.. something like that.

  10. Allison Cordova says:

    Thank you all for your comments! I agree with your assessments about the tasteless nature of the ad.

    Milissa -thanks for keeping it clean! lol

    John – I totally agree, that Ford’s response on social media could have been handled better. On their Facebook page, it seemed like the negative comments just kept on coming ..with very little response from the company side. I also think there are many other ideas they could have come up with to show the trunk space. I’m sure we’ll think of this when we see the next Ford Figo ad!