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Ford's Fables

Manufacturer scores with ESUVEE creature

By Novella Carpenter

Just before 2003, Ford Motor Company settled a class-action lawsuit with attorney generals from all 50 states. The lawsuit was led by Florida attorney general Bob Butterworth, and charged that Ford concealed defects in the Explorer, continued to use Bridgestone Firestone tires even though they were a known safety risk and hid recalls from consumers. Ford settled for $51.5 million, and agreed to fund a $30 million education campaign on SUV risks and safety tips.

Fast forward two years to yesterday. Stuck in traffic with my friend Hank, I looked up to see a billboard depicting a man straddling a hairy beast. No explanation, just a website: www.esuvee.com. The billboard looked like it was one of those anti-SUV campaigns funded by the Sierra Club, or like the product of that group of kids who slap fake parking tickets on SUVs that say things like "You've been cited for taking up more than your fair share of space, pollution emissions, etc."

To my mind, this righteous (though honest) approach is not going to stop anyone from driving an SUV. I don't think finger-pointing is the way to create a dialogue about the problem. Raise gas prices to their appropriate, nonsubsidized levels—about $5 a gallon—and then see who continues to drive the beasts. But Hank, a fan of elaborate animation, said it wasn't an anti-SUV site at all and that I should check it out.

Back at the desk, I promptly forgot the URL and mistakenly typed "www.esuvee.org," which forwarded me to a scary right-wing website that accuses Planned Parenthood of being the Klan in disguise. Back at www.esuvee.com, though, you'll find a bison mated with a Ford Explorer that is supposed to teach reckless young men about the dangers of SUVs. It just might work.

ESUVEE is "SUV" with an Eastern European accent, but it's also the campaign's furry, gorilla-footed, grill-mouthed mascot. On the website, and in a commercial that airs when certain manly sports are televised, the ESUVEE appears to be alive. Its hair blows in the wind, its body crouches realistically and it runs. Meanwhile, the four important safety messages are hazily transmitted:

1. Don't overload your SUV. Even though you might have enough room, overloading it increases the risk of rollover.

2. Keep your tires inflated to the proper level. Most SUVs are under-inflated which causes friction and can consequently cause tire blowout.

3. Don't speed.

4. Buckle your seatbelt.

The last two are applicable for any driver, but the first two cause me to ponder why SUV's continue to exist at all if they've been so poorly engineered. To their credit, Ford and GM are now offering electronic stability-control systems, which automatically apply brakes or reduce engine power if sensors detect a possibility of rollover.

Because it is funded by Ford, though, ESUVEE is decidedly not an anti-SUV campaign. You are not guilted for driving one of the beasts; in fact, you might look more favorably on the things after watching the commercial or visiting the website. The animation is brilliant—the creature looks so ugly it's cute—but there's little substance other than making the creature appealing.

For example, the commercial features a rodeo of sorts, where men ride the crazed ESUVEE through a manure-covered obstacle course while a cheering crowd watches. A sage cowboy on the sidelines says, "Anybody can ride an ESUVEE, but not everybody rides it right." Well, that's just not very helpful. Later in the commercial, the ESUVEE drinks from a gas station trough. Now, what were those important safety things I was supposed to learn?

I do understand the argument—the ads need to be funny and appeal to the target audience—but Ford really scored by creating such a likable mascot with its ambiguous message. In short, we have a malfunctioning product, and instead of removing it, we send out $30 million warnings, one billboard at a time.

Why do I hunger for an ESUVEE stuffed animal? E-mail Novella at [email protected]

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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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