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» More From The Star-Ledger

Message, messenger must quickly click

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Two decades ago, Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca appeared in a memorable and much talked about television commercial with the catchy tagline, "If you can find a better car -- buy it."

It was a great spot that communicated a powerful and compelling message. It challenged consumers in a very direct way. Yet, beyond the message itself, the messenger was just as important. That's why Catherine Zeta-Jones is the on-air spokesperson for T-Mobile.

Now, a new Ford Motor Company commercial called "Rebirth" is hitting the airways. The star of the spot is Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Ford. The ad appears around the same time Ford announced that it planned to close 14 factories and slash as many as 30,000 jobs over the next five to six years. In the TV commercial, Bill Ford talks candidly about the automaker's plan to improve performance and admits his organization has had some problems -- which begs the question, how candid is too candid?

Why would the Ford TV ad focus on the company's problems, particularly if it's delivered by the chief executive? Doesn't that hurt? It is a high-risk move. But the Ford communications team must have felt their credibility was on the line.

Media reports about the company's production problems and massive layoffs forced them to deal head-on with potentially negative public perception. That is an aggressive communication strategy, which breaks a standard rule of advertising, which is to never focus on the negative. However, in this case, it may be warranted. But if the company highlights its problems, how can it then ask you to buy its product? Most of us can only focus on one message at a time. So which is it? That Ford has problems that its boss Bill Ford acknowledges?

Or, that his cars offer a great deal and that you should buy one right away? Another basic rule of communication is that we are lucky if we can communicate one message effectively. Only time will tell if the Ford spot struck the right balance. How much of a challenge here is that you have to communicate the message in a 30-second window? Time is always an issue when communicating. The 30-second commercial limit is a big factor in how Bill Ford presents himself.

When you communicate in 30 seconds or less, you need to be even more concise than normal. You have no opportunity to elaborate. No chance to respond to a question by anyone seeking clarification on your message. You just get one shot to make a connection, which is extremely difficult when consumers are being bombarded with so many other messages. So is it a good idea to have a chief executive appear in a television commercial, or is it better to get a professional communicator or celebrity? It depends. Bill Ford is a solid communicator. He is not especially exciting or dynamic, but he is credible and his name is Ford. That helps.

However, I have seen other company chief executives appear in their own spots with terrible results. Interestingly, some of the most effective commercials featuring company bosses involve some nontraditional, yet memorable, communicators.

Think of Frank Purdue. He sold a lot of chickens with his unique and seemingly genuine communication style. He didn't look like a TV star. In fact, he kind of looked like a chicken. Like I said, he was memorable.

Also, locally, Tom Carvel appeared in his own ice cream commercials. He mumbled, clearly was not charismatic, but again he connected with people. So, in the end, whether you put the company chief executive on or not depends upon a few factors. Is the chief executive credible? Will people believe him or her? And finally, does he or she connect in the TV spot on a personal and human level? If so, I say why not?

Steve Adubato coaches and speaks on communication and leadership. To ask a question, write to or call (973) 744-5260. His Web site is www.

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