I recently attended a product launch for a domestic automaker’s new vehicle. I soon found myself in the usual spot. Above me: the world’s most soothing shower nozzle. Below me: a four-star restaurant serving up the most delectable of Japanese fusion cuisine. While I’m not averse to junketeering’s sybaritic attractions, one question kept ringing in my mind: when? When will Ford realize that it’s time for the pleasure to stop?
I was in The City by the Bay, attending the official press launch for Ford’s new Edge. The event was the industry standard combination of first class travel, picturesque settings, box fresh press cars, fine food and an open bar. While inside the belly of the media beast, I made a car connection with a number of veteran junketeers. Business as usual lads? Yup. OK, one of my peers quipped that this was the first Ford sponsored trip that didn’t involve a stint on the automaker’s private jet. Well fair enough; you wouldn't want to deny Mark Fields the chance to see his family every weekend would you?
Don't get me wrong: I love pampering as much as the next underpaid writer. I’ve been fortunate enough to lay my head on some high thread count pillow cases in my time, dreaming of mirror smooth roads. But it struck me odd that Ford figures the show must go on.
To say that America’s fourth largest automaker is having some financial difficulties is akin to saying that OJ has an image problem. Ford’s dire straits are a product of product and mismanagement and corporate insulation and, well, you know the rest. The Way Fordward has taken its toll on almost every facet of their operation, from plant closures affecting tens of thousands workers, to white collar flight at the highest levels. So why hasn’t the supremely ridiculous exercise in excess known as the press launch been ousted from Ford’s advertising budget?
Do the math. Ford brought three “waves” of journalists into the Bay Area over a four-day period. During that time, Ford had to foot the bill for airfare (some of which was overseas), lodging (well over $400 a night), three to four meals, alcohol, swag, displays, the salaries of all the employees involved, etc. A million might not even cover it. Mutliply that by all the launches– MKX, MKZ, GT500, new Navigator, etc.– and you're talking about some serious wedge.
Ford has lost $7b over the course of 2006. They’ve given themselves three years to bounce back to the point where they can BEGIN to pay off the principal portion of their debt. They need a new, innovative small car a lot more than I need a new, innovative 42” plasma screen in my hotel room. They need to revamp their ancient Lincoln Town Car to broaden it’s appeal more than I need a first class ticket from, um, somewhere to broaden my horizons. Sure, it’s nice, but a ritzy press launch isn’t going to sway my opinion one-way or the other. Or is it? Aye, there’s the steak rub.
As this website has pointed out many times, there is an unspoken agreement between automobile manufacturers and the motoring press: you eat, drink and sleep the rock star lifestyle; make nice with our products in your publications and we’ll invite you back again. If Ford failed to provide the usual journalistic trough, they’d be breaking their end of the bargain.
There’s another potential downside. If Ford pulled the plug on their outrageously expensive press junketeering, journalists would begin to believe that FoMoCo really is in serious trouble. It’s one thing to read or even write the writing on the wall, and quite another to pick up your own check. At that point, the gestalt would change, and Ford’s rep could flounder.
Of course, Ford’s ad budget is the big ass stick behind the gently sautéed carrots. Lose the junkets and the muzzle might loosen, but not fall off. In any case, it’s time for Ford to make Bold Moves that actually LOOK like bold moves. Selling Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston would make a nice start. Killing the endless portions of papya cubed with raspberries would also send a clear message that business as usual is dead. Otherwise, Ford’s still fiddling while Rome burns.