I’ve seen the Ford Company’s Super Bowl commercial a few times now–Google has determined that I’m part of Ford’s target demographic when I choose a Philip Glass or Gerald Finzi piece to listen to on YouTube. There’s a shout-out here to electric cars, to new car-sharing economic models, to bike sharing, and to self-driving vehicles–all trends that Ford seems to be trying to get out in front of. And it all plays out over Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free,” one of the most beautiful and spiritual songs in American popular music. I have to say it’s a remarkable ad, even though Google doesn’t seem to know how much I dislike driving and how unlikely it is I’ll ever buy a new car as long as I live:
Or maybe that’s the point. Ford seems to be selling its brand here to people that don’t consider themselves drivers, or at least not typical drivers. It’s too early yet for me to say whether this particular piece of corporate propaganda is simple greenwashing–think British Petroleum’s laughable “Beyond Petroleum” campaign that aired in the months before the ecological crime they perpetrated with the Deepwater Horizon spill. Is it possible that Ford is really positioning itself as part of the solution to climate change, energy scarcity, air pollution, traffic gridlock–that is, all the problems that Ford hath wrought over the last 100 years?
It’s not impossible to imagine Ford remaking itself for a new transportational reality. Electric cars and self-driving cars are still cars, and Ford seems better-positioned to create them, if they want to, than many other companies trying to enter those markets. It’s a little harder for me to see how car-sharing and bike-sharing fit with the business model of Ford or any extant motor company: the whole idea behind vehicle sharing is that fewer people overall will buy cars. But I suppose there are smart people in Detroit trying to see how they could monetize car sharing in a way that beats out Uber and Lyft–perhaps the Ford of the future will be a massive car (and bike?) owner, a kind of Netflix of vehicles, renting out cars to drivers at a price that makes car ownership seem silly.
A corporation, whether Ford or BP, is an amoral kind of organism designed to do nothing more than maximize value for shareholders, in the same way that an amoeba is designed to eat rotting organic material until it’s big enough to split, amorally, into two amoebas. I wouldn’t call Ford’s move in these new greener directions a sign of Ford’s goodness, any more than BP’s greenwashing was a sign of corporate evil. Both corporations are just trying to make money for shareholders, and Ford is better positioned to handle the changes coming its way than British Petroleum has been. Solar power and wind power are entirely different industries than petroleum extraction; BP is no better positioned to enter the solar power market than Nike or Coca-Cola are.
And to be sure, Ford hasn’t transformed itself–the ad seems more aspiration than reportage. The ad slips in a decent amount of legerdemain, as when this supposedly green, forward looking new company cuts to a shot of the GT tearing along the freeway with all the subtlety of Chester Lampwick’s rocket car from The Simpsons. But the ad has beguiled my attention in spite of, or perhaps because of, my distaste for the driving experience. If a car company can do that, it’s a pretty neat trick.