Ford Gambles on a Lecherous Orange Puppet to Boost Focus Sales

Last Updated Mar 22, 2011 5:43 PM EDT

It's been a long time since anyone pointed to Ford (F) as an example of an innovative marketing. But the company may just have struck gold with Doug, a facetious orange puppet that is the new spokesperson for the Focus. Written and directed by writers from The Office and The Simpsons, the Doug campaign is genuinely funny.

Whether Doug will sell cars is another matter, but it's instantly obvious that he could take on a life of his own in much the same way that Procter & Gamble (PG)'s Old Spice Guy did. A description doesn't really do Doug justice, so here's Ford's launch video:


Doug is a dramatic departure for Ford, compared with its previous advertising (from ad agency Team Detroit, a unit of WPP) which might politely be described as typical of the genre: Cars driving across the desert, blah blah blah. Ford's marketing bosses, unused to stepping out of their creative comfort zones, will probably be chewing their fingernails to the quick over whether Doug will succeed or blow up in their faces, like the Pets.com sock puppet. (On Madison Avenue, that ad icon is now shorthand for the excess of the late 1990s dot com bubble.)

Doug comes with an alarmingly well-developed backstory, in which he was spotted on obscure local TV news video foiling a deli robbery, giving CPR to a stricken bus passenger, and saving a choking victim in a restaurant. The March 8 robbery video -- which doesn't mention Ford at all -- was "liked" by Scott Monty, social media chief at Ford on March 14.

Ford then "hired" Doug as its spokesperson, which is turning out to be a mixed blessing. He hits on every woman in sight. And he's completely unfiltered: informed that the new Focus has "double French stitched leather seats," Doug responds:
How many times have I found myself sitting on single French stitch seats and said I might as well be at the town dump sitting on garbage cans?
As an attention-getter, Doug could be limitless. You can easily see him appearing on talk shows or selling a line of T-shirts, toys and other merchandise. (He already has a Twitter stream.) As a car salesman, it's another story. Doug's sarcasm is of the type that appeals to a very young demographic, and may not sit well with non-ironic car-buying America. He's also a complicated concept (a life-saving, lecherous puppet in a series of fictional videos about car marketing? Hmm.).

But the biggest test will be with Ford's dealers: The central truism of car sales is that the people actually selling cars are the local dealerships, not Ford. Dealers tend to want to see one thing in car ads: Cars, looking beautiful and new. Within the industry there is a strong belief that if ads don't show cars then cars don't sell. Dealers have a low tolerance for clever, trendy ideas that don't include extended beauty shots of new cars.

And as diverting as Doug is, the Focus itself is not the, er, focus of this campaign.

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