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Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

An environmental group is hitting the Ford Motor Company where it hurts: in the opinion of students who in the future are likely to become high-wage auto buyers.

The San Franciso-based Bluewater Network has targeted college students in its campaign to punish the auto giant for pledging to increase the fuel efficiency of its sport utility vehicles by 25 percent over five years - and then retreating when the job penciled out as too expensive.

In the early weeks of this year, paid organizers fanned out to Eugene, Seattle, Portland and Ann Arbor to rally students and collect signed pledges to boycott Ford brands until the company lives up to its environmental promises.

Organizers claimed they've collected 10,000 pledges nationally, including 520 during drives at the University of Oregon campus. About half of the Eugene students also signed up to help spread the word.

The nature of the nation's 15 million college students could make the boycott a prelude to a nightmare for Ford's marketing department.

If this crop of young people aren't born skeptics, by middle school they're plenty wary of advertising, studies show.

Marketers find their good opinion is tricky to win and all too easy to lose. Yet these young adults hold the key to future spending power - and they know it.

"We might not have money to buy cars right now but, coming up soon, we'll be the majority of people who have money to buy cars," 20-year-old UO biology major Megan Kuhn said.

Anti-marketing push

Marketers are scratching their heads over youths' resistance to advertising, said David Funk, creative director of the regional marketing firm Funk & Associates in Eugene.

Young people are, themselves, highly skilled communicators, and some can use text and image as well as your average advertiser.

The "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" phenomenon of three years ago left no doubt whatsoever. The phrase comes from a poorly translated Japanese video game, in which the conquering character declares victory: "All Your Base Are ... '

Young people plying the Internet picked up the phrase, integrated it into photographs of familiar text - "photoshopped" is the verb they use - such as a green national highway sign, the United Nations dais, and a tombstone. A band called "Laziest Men On Mars" set the phrase to music, and the music accompanies a Web-based "flash movie" of all the doctored images.

"It was just a phenomenon. People thought it was really cool," said Nate Feyma, a UO multimedia design major.

Soon after, an offshoot Web site called "All Your Brand Are Belong To Us" arrived to notify "cynical, imagination-deficient marketeers" that "We, as a market of your target demographic, are not now positively pre-disposed toward your product."

Participants copy corporate logos - as soon as they emerge in public - brand them with the words "All Your Brand Are Belong To Us" and publish the altered logos on the "All Your Brand" Web site.

The Internet activists subscribe to the science of "memetics," which holds that thought patterns - or memes - can replicate, like genes, from person to person and alter their thoughts and beliefs.

The "All Your Brand" authors see the spread as a contagion and their appropriation of advertising images as inoculation. They claim to be "pre-emptively highjacking strong memes for heightened media resistance," according to the Web site.

These anti-marketing activists reflect the skepticism of the young.

"You're explicitly acknowledging that here are these folks who are trying to influence you, and you're going to use it right back at them. You're in control of this entire thing," said Marian Friestad, marketing professor at the UO's Lundquist College of Business.

Marketers can do little to shield their products from online examination, from anti-brand rants to consumer complaints, Friestad said. And college students are likely to take it all in before the buy.

Half of the students in her introductory marketing class told Friestad they regularly purchase items over the Internet.

"For this group of people it's like air. They use it for everything. It's just like breathing for them. They use it to gather information and use it for price comparisons."

Students use the Internet as an independent source of information to corroborate what they've heard about a product.

"A lot of people would buy something if it's labeled environmentally friendly," said UO student Marcie Neil, 19, who signed the Ford boycott pledge. "It's important to know if it is or not. It's important to know the truth and not whatever's just a marketing scheme."

Neil, a journalism major, said her friends are just as skeptical of marketers. "It seems like a trend to be anti-brands and anti-marketing. It's kind of popular," she said.

Plum demographic

For automakers, meanwhile, college students are the plum demographic on the sales horizon. Ford would entice them with the Focus, the Mustang and the Escape SUV.

Future socio-economic status is based on income, education and profession, Friestad said. College students are on their way to the upper rungs. Automakers are only one business group that courts their favor.

"There's a pretty strong indication that if you can capture a customer as early as possible in their buying lifetime - if you're delivering a good product - their loyalty to you will continue throughout the life span," Friestad said.

"If you ask somebody, what was the first car you ever bought? Every person would be able to tell you that - even those who've purchased 10 or 12 or more since then," she said.

"If during the college years you can do something to increase the students' interest in or positive feelings about your brand, then you increase the likelihood that yours will be the first one they buy," she said.

Though her fiance drives a Ford Ranger, the company will have to go a long way to claim the heart - or wallet - of Marie Tallant, 21, who graduates with a degree in geography this spring.

"It's important for international leaders like Ford to set an example - and for the company to make a pledge and then renege on it is the opposite of helping," she said.

"I'm not like: `Boycott Ford. Put them out of business.' Just let them know their potential customers need some recognition and this is what they want: better fuel efficiency."

Ford's answer

In recent weeks, Ford appears to have launched a two-prong answer to the Bluewater boycott.

First, in mid-February, the company sent a letter to Bluewater Network director Russell Long asking him to stop the boycott.

The letter claimed that the network's practice of encouraging students to call Ford and ask for better fuel efficiency amounted to criminal harassment, Long said.

The letter said Bluewater's claim that Ford's vehicles were declining in fuel economy over time was false, Long said. "They're claiming our facts are incorrect, but fortunately our facts are supported by the Environmental Protection Agency data."

And it charged that Blue- water committed trademark infringement when it used a Ford logo with a circle and slash through it in boycott campaign literature.

The 8-year-old Bluewater Network is a nonprofit organization with 20,000 members, an 11-member staff and revenue of less than $1 million, Long said. He declined to disclose the group's funding sources.

Ford's second strategy is to trumpet the company's "good works" on behalf of the environment:

A Focus PZEV model that has all but eliminated emissions. "It's one of the cleanest vehicles ever known to mankind," said Carolyn Brown, spokeswoman for Ford Motor Company, adding that the company will have 150,000 on the road in the near future.

Planting 10.4 acres of groundcover at the company's truck assembly plant in Dearborn. The project won Ford a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the "World's Largest Living Roof."

Hustling to be the first automaker with a hybrid SUV on the market by getting its Escape hybrid out the door this summer.

"Our chairman has been very vocal in terms of making environmental commitments," Brown said.

Ford could not meet its 2000 pledge to boost SUV fuel economy by 25 percent in five years because, between then and now, the company posted $5.5 billion in losses, she said.

"We're doing everything we possibly can to advance the state of the art, but we're not going to be signing up for any dates right now," Brown said.


Learn about the Ford Motor Company's environmental program, the Bluewater Network's campaign and the anti-marketing movement at these Web sites:


Bluewater Network:


Anti-marketing inspiration:

Fuel efficiency ratings:
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Title Annotation:Business; Anti-Ford campaign signs up students skeptical of marketing
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 22, 2004
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