In March, Ford launched a sub rosa Web campaign featuring a character named Doug -- literally a sock puppet who stars in a series of Web videos on Facebook and elsewhere. But the quirky sock puppet campaign, in addition to talking up the 2012 Focus, has involved itself in a meta commentary on automotive marketing, the press, and the publicity business in a way that is sometimes hilarious and sometimes a little uncomfortable. Now the automaker is either taking it a step further or perhaps over the line -- depending on one's perspective -- with a new chapter in which the puppet and handler woo real reporters for a real auto buff book.
A new series of videos featuring Doug and his perpetually chagrined sidekick and ersatz Ford marketer John reflect a partnership with auto-vertical publisher Bonita Springs, Fla.-based Source Interlink Media (SIM). The videos star the real staff of SIM's Automobile Magazine. The video vignettes, which are live at www.automobilemag.com, are, per Ford, for auto buffs and anyone else desperately seeking something funny. (Could an appearance on "SNL" be on the horizon?)
The videos, which will run through the month, were shot at the magazine's headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich. and at Ford's proving grounds in Dearborn. The premise is that the two characters are at the buff book's offices to do a presentation on the Focus for reporters and editors. Doug plays the ventriloquist-puppet role of making any serious efforts by the marketer impossible.
In one video, John and Doug make a PowerPoint presentation to the staff aimed as a general overview of the Focus. Doug ruins the presentation for John by having inserted his own slides comparing Focus to a club sandwich (his other favorite thing.) In another video, the two marketers bring the staff to Ford's test track. John is talking up Focus features while Doug is hitting on a staffer inside the vehicle.
Automobile Magazine Editor in Chief Jean Jennings said the idea was to show people the publication from the inside and to entertain. "The improv comedians involved are really quite hilarious, and we took a chance, too. What resulted was an inside look at our publication and an informative and funny series of segments starring the Focus. We all had a lot of fun shooting them. I think people will find the videos pretty entertaining; it was great getting the whole staff involved."
Sharon Ann Lee, founder and cultural trend analyst at Los Angeles- based firm Culture-Brain, tells Marketing Daily that Ford's sock puppet campaign is "late freight" to the realm, but a good sign that the company is letting people with creative ideas try things. "When you have a product -- a mass market car -- with no inherent personality, you are kind of burdened to create something that's either the classic car ad to make it sexier than it is and beauty- shot the hell out of it, or you create a character." She points to even less anthropomorphic products like insurance that consumers can't see or feel but that benefit from a character upstaging it. "With the Geico gecko and the Aflac duck, the product is what it is, and the characters make it interesting and exciting."
Lee says the meta commentary on Ford itself is also a marketing gambit likely to work in the world of viral Web videos. "It's very '30 Rock,' (where the show makes fun of NBC, the network that airs it). And with young people, anti-corporatism is a common value. If you are the corporation -- and you don't get more 'the corporation' than Ford -- you have to play that down," she says. "The social space is an odd place for a corporation to be without having some evolved way of making fun of yourself."
Lee also points out that self-lampooning can allow a company -- or characters representing it -- to oserve as cultural cleansing agents, sort of like celebrities going on "Oprah" or "SNL" to make fun of their own foibles and reputations (Mark Zuckerberg on "SNL" with the actor who played him, or Rob Lowe on "Oprah.") "They have to address the obvious thing in the room -- that they are a giant corporation and they want to play in this very personal space."