Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Less Talk, More Action

Hey, here’s an idea: What if you had a car … that talked? And not only talked but nagged, insulted and just generally excoriated you nonstop in a really irritating voice? Well, then you’d have this new Ford Focus campaign.

No, you say, we’re long familiar with the concept: As Americans who love their cars, and long to treat them as honored members of the family, we’ve already lived with the chatty auto wackiness of one of the most mocked TV shows of the 1960s, My Mother the Car. But that show had some depth and subtlety. The car was the poor guy’s mom, reincarnated and sent back to irritate him into eternity. The son, played by the hapless Jerry Van Dyke, was the only one who could hear the car, so he had a Mr. Ed-like relationship with the vintage roadster. And he set out to fix her up and drive her around, leading to many Freudian and Oedipal nightmares that didn’t seem to bother viewers.

In our culture, the idea of a talking car, as bad as it is, just can’t be killed. In the early ’80s, Knight Rider, starring a pre-Baywatch David Hasselhoff (complete with flirtatious perm), featured KITT, the “crime-fighting car of the century.” But KITT did much more than act as a mere voice box. In one episode, he prevented a band of revolutionaries from stealing nuclear missiles and managed to win $50,000 in a craps game. Pretty good for a souped-up ’82 Pontiac Trans-Am.

In that context, the Ford Focus is less Knight Rider and more My Mother the Car crossed with the Arby’s oven mitt.

However lame the anthropomorphism of the Arby’s mitt is (and I can’t believe I’m defending the pathetically sorry thing), at least there’s a set of eyes and a mouth, and an articulated thumb to connect with and/or hate. Whereas the Ford has a booming, disembodied male voice emanating somewhere from the dull, locked-off, side-view shot of the car. But what the car says has the same grating, straining-for-a-laugh tone and sensibility that Tom Arnold’s smiling mitt emits.

All the car’s yelling and scolding, by the way, is neatly explained with the tagline, “It begs to be driven.” But oddly, the owner doesn’t hear it—just we poor viewers.

To be fair, the teasers are worse than the actual spots. In one, the voice speaks in the da-da-da-da-duts of “Reveille,” and then in mock Marine-sergeant cadence barks, “Open the door and get in the seat. New Ford Focus can’t be beat.” Bad timing on the fun-war-ditties front, I’d say.

But I prefer that one over the other teaser, which actually consists solely of four “Cock-a-doodle-doos,” shouted by the car (actor Scott Parkin), which doesn’t even attempt to sound like a rooster, or even a faux rooster. He also says, “Wake up! Drive me!”

The spots involve actual scenarios, so that’s an improvement over the static screams. In “Broken,” a twentysomething guy hobbles down the steps of his apartment with a crutch, one leg in a cast, to get a CD out of his car. The spot has a nice contemporary look, but it brings out the inherent sadism of the Focus ZX5’s voice. “For the love of figure-eights [for the love of figure-eights?], I need to get on the road ASAP!” he says. The snowboarding-accident joke has already become a cliché and has been used to show leg room in at least one other car ad (for Chrysler’s Pacifica). But at least it points to an active, happening, 21st-century type of guy, as opposed to the voice’s stylings, which seem straight out of the ’70s.

It’s pretty much the same setup with “Jogger.” A beautiful young woman of color (nice casting) gets ready for a run and comes over to her Focus ZX4ST to get out her iPod. Here, the voice is not only not funny but ickily sexual in describing its needs. “Well, it’s about time, Sleeping Beauty,” our Prince Charming says. “Thought you pretty much forgot about me out here. I’m a car that craves pavement. If I don’t get some soon, ooh, I’ll go loo-loo!”

When not trying to induce guilt and manipulate, and otherwise make every interaction with its owner descend into interpersonal-dysfunctional hell, the voice is a device that allows Ford to tick off the selling features of the various Focus models. That’s all good stuff, and there are details in each spot about good mileage and clean emissions and European-inspired suspension. But while offering the extensive laundry list, the voice is so irritating that you don’t want to bother listening.

Plus, the monotonous shot that the concept requires hardly shows the car to its greatest advantage. We don’t get to see its nice corners or curves. But the biggest thing we’re missing is the idea of a fun driving experience. Instead, we’re stuck getting lectured sideways by a passive-aggressive, narcissistic, needy car. That’s entertainment?

Finally, in the what-were-they-thinking department: Why would you want to buy a car that’s immediately disappointed in you? Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

ford focus


J. Walter Thompson, Detroit

Executive creative director

Tom Cordner

Director of broadcast production

Carole Gall

Creative directors

Carl Warner, Ed Cole


Brian Cusac

Art director

John Cymbal

Senior producer

Tom Robertson


Alan White/Radical media