Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Casting Abraham Lincoln as a Ghostly Shill

How far will corporations and their advertising stooges go in their pursuit of a buck? To quote Buzz Lightyear: "to infinity and beyond." I frequently revise my list of the most self-serving, tasteless, and arrogant commercials. I must tell you that the current advertising campaign for "The Lincoln Motor Company" has catapulted to the top of my list, and I sincerely hope that there will be nothing in the near future to challenge its hegemony. 

History and common sense both tell us that Lincoln, the man, and Lincoln, the automobile, never crossed paths. We know that the "Great Emancipator" was assassinated in 1865, while the first automobile of that name did not appear until 1908. We are also are aware that Lincoln, the automobile, has been the luxury division of the Ford Motor Company for most of the past century. Thus the full page ad that "The Lincoln Motor Company" took out in the December 10, 2012 New York Times is "something of a puzzlement," to quote the King of Siam. It is introduced with the headline "Hello, Again," in boldface type. The text begins with the obsequious and putative self-deprecating declaration that 'It takes a special type of ego to presume that the world needs another luxury car." In fact, "it's a bit like the kind [of ego] that interrupts your otherwise meaningful pursuit of current events with a full page ode to our intentions." How does the reader really know that he or she has that "special type of ego": To really see, look inward." [Obsequious is not a strong enough word, but I can't think of any other that doesn't involve affection for unspeakable body parts. Even Narcissus would hesitate.]

Besides, it continues, "sometimes ego isn't as self-serving as it sounds," because "true trail blazers follow their inner light." You have to be "pretty confident to create what has never been done. It is true in history, invention, art, you name it. Even automotive design...The Lincoln Motor Company is undoubtedly traveling down a different road, and only those who have what it takes to be a "true trailblazer" deserve to take that same route."[ As the old saw says, "it takes one to know one."' The ad mildly chastises Henry Ford for trying "to create the most popular car in the world," while praising his son Edsel for taking "a fundamentally different approach at Lincoln." In a self-conscious attempt at candor, the ad concedes that "the cars Edsel created were different" and that 'truth be told, not everyone liked them." Nevertheless, the ad continues, Edsel dedicated himself to an uncompromising belief in design...because he knew the best way to serve the driver was to design the best possible car." Those who liked them "found four-wheeled kindred spiits that spoke to therm." Sometimes, it pontificates, "it is worth sacrificing the lukewarm affection of some, if it means forging a remarkable bond between man and machine."  "Edsels's ego was the self-sacrificing kind (???) that served only one thing--the needs of the individuals who drove his cars." This is how Lincoln started. This is how we will become great again.              

Despite its strong beginnings, the ad confesses,"our once great company eventually lost its way. Which is why we're introducing a full-blown reimagining of the one you once knew--or in many cases, never knew." [After all, Edsel died in 1943.] During that brief hiatus, however, "we've picked up a few things about making cars. To think smaller. Smarter. More nimbly." We have refocused "on the things that made us great--starting with a new design studio."  Over the next four years, the company pledges to release "four disarmingly new models," reinvigorate dealerships, and elevate our owner services to be on a par with the world's most exclusive concierges." In short, We have reinvented the wheel by placing you at the center. Ultimately, they proclaim, "this is an investment hell-bent on rewarding not us, but the individual," so that "you'll find a refreshing respect for your time, whether you are shopping for a Lincoln or driving one." You will be treated "as a client, not as a customer," and you will "get the distinctive sense that there are people at Lincoln who actually care."  Their goal, the ad frankly asserts, "is not a car in every driveway [take that, Herbert Hoover and Henry Ford], our name in every household, nor to be all things to all people. Simply, our goal is to be everything for a certain few.     

Translated into realspeak by analyst Bill Vlasic, in the Times "AUTOMOBILES" section, however,this imperious argumentum ad nauseam reads "Ford Redoubles Effort to Reawaken Its Sleepy Lincoln Brand." In the highly competitive world of luxury cars, Vlasic flatly states, "the Ford Motor Company's Lincoln brand has long been stuck in the slow lane, with stodgy models, older buyers, and a distinct lack of pizazz."  Left in the dust by BMW, Lexus, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln ranks eighth, and falling, among luxury cars sold in the U.S. It accounts for just 3 percent of Ford's total sales, down from 8 percent in the early 1990s."There is nothing more frustrating for us," according to James D. Farley, the newly named chief of the Lincoln Revival Team,"than to have someone who loves their Ford car and S.U.V., but goes out to buy a luxury model from another brand because we don't have one." [I am fairly certain that those Americans not looking to buy a third car--and a luxury one at that--can think of a million things more frustrating.] The big question is, according to the marketing firm Trout and Partners, "how can Lincoln convince people it is more than a gassed-up Ford.?"  The answer, as Vlasic interprets the gist of the Lincoln advertising campaign, is "upgraded customer service initiatives, a new brand name that plays down the Ford connection and an unusual advertising campaign that features Abraham Lincoln, the president for whom the brand is named."  Its 300 leaders "are learning the new tenets of luxury service at training sessions nicknamed the Lincoln Academy. A 108-page manual of 'luxury truths' details the new approach to pampering potential buyers, ranging from how to welcome them at a dealership to celebrating the anniversary of their purchase."  

This "rechristening," involves television spots that begin "with an image of Lincoln, stovepipe hat and all." It also presumably involves improving the automobiles themselves, as well as "a revamped Web site that links consumers to a Lincoln "concierge," who can arrange test drives or set up appointments at dealerships."  The latter will also feature "a consultant available 24 hours a day for live discussions about the products and to streamline the buying process. Prospective buyers will be given "an opportunity for a 'date-night with Lincoln' [surely the car and not the president, although who can doubt the marvels that adverting technology has in store for the future?] which includes a two-day test drive and a free meal at a restaurant."  A newly formed team of 200 people "is intent on establishing the Lincoln Motor Company as a boutique luxury line known for personalized service." Every customer who reserves the pioneering MKZ model, "will be presented with an elegant gift upon receiving the car"--a choice of fine wines and Champagne, custom-made jewelry or sunglasses, or a one-night stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel.                      

But all of this would be simply an modernized version of the obscene excesses of the decaying Roman Empire or Gilded Age America, if it weren't for its use of Abraham Lincoln as a metaphor for its cars. "The name Lincoln has a very strong meaning for this country," says Farley, chief of the Lincoln Revival Team.  "What he stood for as president was independence [I don't think that Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee would agree] fortitude and elegant thinking." Needless to say, "any connection with the new Stephen Spielberg film about the widely admired president, is both fortunate and coincidental...We didn't plan it that way, but sometimes it's better to be lucky."  Lets see. What is Lincoln's most popular nickname? HONEST ABE? 

THE OFFICIAL 2013 LINCOLN MKZ COMMERCIAL begins with the image of a tall man in a frock coat, complete with stovepipe hat, floating toward us out of the mists of time. The reverential voice-over assures us that "this is about moving forward by looking back" Amid the collage of seemingly disconnected images that follow are brief glimpses of Lincoln with frock coattails flowing and looking thoughtfully out to sea. As the narrator breathlessly intones some gobbledegook about "setting precedents for presidents," there are flashes of FDR, Dean Martin, and [I think] Clark Gable. Go Figure! The narrator concludes by saying "This is about going places where others aren't. Introducing The Lincoln Motor Company." My favorite Lincoln commercial, however, shows a young couple driving a 1940s model over an idyllic country road, while an evanescent image of "the man" floats tantalizingly over the surrounding countryside.

Curiously enough, there was no image of Lincoln in the company's horrendous Super Bowl commercial that one critic pronounced "an immediate contender for the titles of the worst Super Bowl commercial of all time and worst car commercial of all time, an unlikely and breathtaking confluence of failures."  Maybe they should have invoked the blessing of the president who saved the Union and freed the slaves.


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