Ford’s Dissociative Identity Disorder Towards Animals

fordtwofacemanEarlier this week, I wrote a bit about my hope that the “new GM” would tone down the greenwashing. In that post I promised to return to the subject of car company environmental rhetoric shortly. Well, this isn’t what I had in mind, but there is a conversation happening over at Identity Campaigning concerning a 2007 ad from Ford of Europe, and I couldn’t help but respond.

The ad in question features fetal animals (an elephant, dolphin and polar bear – charismatic mega-fauna of course) in their wombs. According to the press release (available via AutoBlogGreen) announcing the campaign, the imagery is simulated — no real animals were used (phew, that’s a relief… now if only Fords didn’t cause roadkill either).

In the press release, Ford speaks of its “Commitment for Future Generations:”

Ford’s new Flexifuel campaign stresses the company’s commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainable mobility, and it’s [sic] relevance for future generations. The campaign uses images of the next generation of ecologically sensitive animals all on the verge of birth, though no real animals were used in its creation.

The powerful images have been created using the latest, state-of-the-art model making and film techniques to provide a super-real portrayal of what would be seen if the camera were filming inside a dolphin, elephant or polar bear. Time and care has been taken to ensure that the images are anatomically and scientifically correct.

“We hope to highlight the need for all of us to make changes to our daily lives to preserve the planet for future generations of animals and humans alike,” said Odell. “Ford’s flexifuel technology is one such change that is easy to make.”

“The environmental benefits and affordability of this technology and bio-ethanol mean that people can contribute immediately to lower CO2 for the benefit of future generations,” Odell added. “On this occasion, while our customers might not feel the difference, the planet will.”

Ready? Here is the ad:

OK, so Ford has declared its concern for “future generations of animals and humans alike.” And it is certainly reasonable to view this little gem of green marketing as potentially affirming both our connection to Nature, and the intrinsic value of non-human Nature, as Renée Lertzman suggests in her original post at Identity Campaigning. However, I’m not sure we can easily claim that the ad will stimulate just such a response in the audience as a whole (and I don’t think Renée is doing so). The purpose of this kind of advertising (and a lot of other auto advertising for that matter) is to reach a specific segment of the car-buying market. In this case, it’s people who already have environmentally-sympathetic leanings or identities.

Large car companies need to appeal to different market niches when advertising their vehicles in order to be able to sell their whole product range. Let’s remember that Toyota sells the Tundra and the Land Cruiser as well as the Prius, not to mention their other models. Different ads are needed to appeal to different identity groups (market niches). What the Ford brand means to one person is not necessarily the same as what it means to another. So, we need to consider this ad as representing just one of Ford’s faces, namely its greenwashing side.

Before moving on to talk about Ford’s other advertising personality, I want to make an aside. Watching the womb ad reminded me of something Shane Gunster wrote in his paper “You Belong Outside: Advertising, Nature and the SUV.”

Incessant celebrations of a luxurious interior defended by an armored shell champion the mobile and aggressive privatization of public space in which those with wealth and resources can use and enjoy the commons while maintaining complete control over their own personal environment…. A new television spot for the Mitsubishi Endeavor, for example, opens with a rapid montage of a black SUV racing through various urban scenes accompanied by an aggressive, hard rock soundtrack. As the camera passes through the tinted windows, the music abruptly dissolves into the theme song for SpongeBob Squarepants, a cartoon playing on the Endeavor’s built-in DVD. Parents smile contentedly at the happy children in the back seat. “It’s perfect for families,” notes the narrator, “but who needs to know,” as the camera passes back through the windshield and the rock soundtrack returns…. The menacing exterior fits the (male) reptilian instinct for survival while the soft ‘womblike’ interior matches the (female) reptilian instinct for reproduction.

Working from this idea, it’s possible to interpret the womb ad as on a deeper level appealing to an essentialized female desire to nurture their young. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that an advertiser has used cute baby animals in order to remind us of our own cute kids. For example:

Isn’t that sweet?

OK, now back to Ford. In my Nature and Popular Culture class, I show quite a few ads throughout the semester. Without fail, there are two that elicit the strongest responses, both part of the same campaign from Ford UK from a few years ago. Warning: animal lovers may be offended by these ads.

First the pigeon, seen as a “pest species” for the most part, so not so terrible…

And this one, featuring someone’s pet cat, evokes greater disdain.

OK, so this campaign was undoubtedly dreamed up by a bunch of frat boys who probably thought that it would be edgy and viral. Well, I guess it is. But it’s also perverse and shameful. Anyway, my point is that these ads are going to appeal to people with very different environmental identities than will the womb ad. And Ford, for its part, evinces a kind of corporate dissociative identity disorder towards animals. Some years it wants to kill them, and other years it wants to love and provide a future for them. This interpretation is consistent with a lot of work in animal studies that finds humans exhibiting extremely contradictory views of animals and relationships with them (think of factory farms and pet cemeteries if you will).

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About Mark S. Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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