Saturday, September 08, 2007

Fiascos, Then and Now

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This past Tuesday marked the anniversary of an event that nearly brought a major American corporation to its knees and gave the national lexicon a new buzzword for colossal failure.

Fifty years ago, on Sept. 4, 1957, Ford Motor Company introduced the Edsel.

It was supposed to be the car of the future, the Next Big Thing. It was also, according to a recent article in The Washington Post, the subject of one of the biggest marketing campaigns ever seen up to that time.

The geniuses at Ford kept the actual design of the car a secret up until the day of release, while teasing people with cryptic references to the mysterious, upcoming "E-car." They hired "motivational researchers" to determine what people wanted out of their cars. They did study after study just to come up with a name for the vehicle, even going so far as to ask famous poet Marianne Moore what she would call it. (Some of Moore's suggestions: "Ford Faberge," "Mongoose Civique," and "Utopian Turtletop.")

Finally, in what Ford's PR director, C. Gayle Warnock, later called an attempt to "brown-nose" company President Henry Ford II, Ford's CEO settled on "Edsel," the name of Ford's late father. This despite the protestations of Warnock, who predicted they'd lose 200,000 sales with a name like that.

(I, for one, will admit to being partial to "Mongoose Civique.")

Once the name was settled on, the hype really kicked into high gear. The crafty Warnock gave favored reporters sneak peaks at the car; the reporters responded to the special access with favorable reviews of a car they'd barely seen and never driven. When the car was finally unveiled, people were stunned, but not in the way Ford wanted.

First off, the car just looked weird. For no really good reason, the engineers at Ford decided that the Edsel would have a vertical, oval-shaped grille on the front rather than the horizontal grille that had served perfectly adequately for other cars in the past. Unfortunately, the early designs didn't take in enough air to keep the engine cool, so the oval got bigger and bigger until it looked, to some people, like a horse collar. To others it looked, shall we say, vaguely obscene.

Add to that the fact that the car just didn't work very well. It had a push-button transmission, located in the middle of the steering wheel, that had a nasty tendency to freeze up. Stuff tended to fall off the car. Doors and trunks wouldn't close. It leaked so badly that people joked that the name stood for "Every Day Something Else Leaks."

Part of the problem was that, although this was supposed to be Ford's most popular model, they had amazingly never dedicated a factory line to making the Edsel. The cars were produced on Ford and Mercury assembly lines, where workers had to change parts bins and tools whenever they switched to the Edsel. Sometimes parts got left off, either by confusion or by disgruntled workers.

Within weeks, it became obvious that the Edsel was a bomb. So the PR team got together and came up with another brilliant strategy: Test-drive an Edsel, and you'd be entered in a drawing to win a pony, right there at the dealership.

Yes, you heard right. Ford bought 1,000 ponies and sent them to dealers. Unfortunately, most suburban Americans didn't have any place to keep a pony, so this marketing strategy flopped almost as badly as the car itself. Not only that, but Ford found itself stuck with a glut of ponies. I've done some research, but I have yet to discover what was done with the excess ponies. I'm not really sure I want to know.

Finally, after losing over $250 million (big money in those days), Ford pulled the plug on the Edsel. Ironically, one of the people responsible for calling an end to the debacle was a Ford exec named Robert McNamara, who would later go on to participate in the creation of his own ill-conceived disaster as secretary of defense under Lyndon Johnson.

So, looking back, what do we see in the failure of the Edsel? A massively overheated hype before the fact, with a compliant press going along. A tendency to tell the boss what they thought he wanted to hear rather than listening to the opinions of professionals. Throwing out years of established doctrine for no good reason. Failure to adequately prepare for the operation (aka going into production with the factory you have, not the factory you need). Then throwing good money after bad in an attempt to salvage the ill-conceived idea. Sound familiar?

Maybe there really is nothing new under the sun.

1 comment:

pattinase (abbott) said...

It looks might pretty though, doesn't it? We forgot how to make pretty cars.