Ford's C-Max goes for laughs to dethrone Prius in 'Hybrid Games'

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When Ford Motor Co. and its Team Detroit ad agency were creating a campaign for the new C-Max Hybrid, they had one clear target in their sights: the undisputed champion of the hybrid world, the Toyota Prius.

But Ford marketers didn't think the kind of serious, mano a mano comparison ads you might see for, let's say, pickups would be appropriate for hybrids, whose buyers tend to be just a little on the mellower side. So Ford decided to go for the funnybone instead of the jugular.

For the campaign, which started this morning on CNN, Ford revived a 1970s Italian animated children's series called "La Linea." In Italian, La Linea translates as "the line." The ads feature white-line silhouettes of the C-Max and Prius drawn on a blue background along with the La Linea character, who is nameless and doesn't speak.

The whimsical TV ads show the C-Max silhouette whizzing past the Prius V while a voice says: "C-Max has lots more horsepower than the Prius V, a hybrid that C-Max also bests in mpg."

The marketing campaign moves into late-night comedy territory in three online videos called "The Hybrid Games" that feature the C-Max vs. the Prius in a series of sporting contests, including "the Semi Pass," "the Freeway On-Ramp," and "the MPG Challenge."

To see the action, click here.

Calling the action in these contests are two very nerdy faux sports announcers named Bob and Roger. Roger is a mellow, California-kind of dude who slouches a little in his chair and says he's OK to "chill" when he gets stuck behind a semi truck on the road, while Bob is different. "I get angry," Bob says.

The camera shifts to a desert road where an 18-wheeler is rumbling along, carrying a load of portable toilets, of all things. The Prius comes up and slowly passes. Roger says, "I really like how chill the Prius is. What's your rush, dude?" while the Prius' horsepower (134) and torque (105 ft.-lbs.) are shown at the bottom.

After the pokey Prius finally finishes passing the semi, it's the C-Max's turn. The C-Max cruises up and effortlessly passes both the semi and the Prius while its horsepower (188) and torque (129) are displayed.

"Look at that confidence — it even passes the Prius," Bob shouts in his best game voice.

But mellow Roger says woozily: "Remember, there are no losers here."

"OK," Bob retorts, "this isn't tee-ball."

Toby Barlow, chief creative officer for the Team Detroit agency, said hybrids are essentially "forward-thinking and optimistic." That's why Ford chose to use a little humor.

"It's nice to be light-hearted and fun," he said. But Barlow knows the ads, however funny, have a serious purpose. They must get the C-Max, "a name that has zero awareness," on shoppers' lists as an alternative to the Prius, which is to hybrids as Kleenex is to tissues.

Says Matt Van Dyke, Ford director of U.S. marketing communications: "This is a major launch. This is not going to be a three-month, 90-day spike it and turn it over to the dealers. This is [going to be a] consistent effort through all the next calendar year.

" This is not two TV ads and done. The launch is completely right-sized being a core vehicle that can do a substantial amount of volume."

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@crain.com.

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