Transparency Muddy in Ford "Swap Your Ride"

TransparencyShe’s baaaaack….I am back from maternity leave, raring to go, and hoping that I never again consume as much non-prime time TV as I have over the last 6 weeks. One of the commercials I have seen frequently is one for the Ford that involves foreign car drivers being asked by “market researchers” to switch their car for a Ford vehicle and have their impressions taped.
Per an article that appeared in the September 14 Wall Street Journal, the folks who presented themselves to the customers as market researchers are actually employees of Ford’s advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson,

“Ford was behind a ruse involving about 80 people around the country in the past several weeks. In New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Dallas, its advertising agency, JWT, had workers pretend to be from a fake market-research firm, track down owners of cars made by Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and other competitors, and ask them to drive new Ford models for a supposedly impartial weeklong test….At the Dallas test, 20 or so fake market researchers — actually JWT staffers — set up operations at a convention center and donned green polo shirts with “In-Home Test Drive Experience” embroidered in gold. Outside a small brick building they set up camera teams to interview drivers returning their Ford test vehicles. Inside, the account team sat in front of four flat-screen monitors, watching live interviews and listening for the choicest comments.”

Is it just me, or does this remind you of the incident that sparked the conversation around ethics in Word of Mouth Marketing – marketers posing as tourists asking people on the street to take their photo – thus inviting them to sample the new camera under false pretenses? To me, this seems like an almost identical scenario. That particular incident has been condemned repeatedly and is what invited the giant ethical magnifying glass now firmly installed over all WOMM activities. The Ford campaign, by contrast, is referred to later in the Journal article as “clever advertising“.

Am I missing something? Should old-school marketing not have to live up to the same high standards of ethical transparency to which newer marketing mediums hold themselves? Should JWT and WOMMMA members be operating out of totally different playbooks?

Transparency should be the golden rule for dealing with consumers – be it for marketers, big brands, or other consumers wanting to share their opinions. That’s the only way to build meaningful dialogue and the scenario in which we all prosper.

(Please also read Dr. Walter Carl’s analysis of the ethical issues in the program, found here) 

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