Beast of the Month - October 2000
Jacques Nasser, Ford Motor Company CEO
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
Motto, Ford Motor
It's hyped by Time Magazine as "the biggest consumer panic since the Tylenol scare." The thing is, it isn't all panic, and, unlike Johnson & Johnson when the Tylenol poisonings occurred, the company at the center of the storm hasn't faced the crisis straight on.
So far, 6.5 millions Firestone tires on Ford Explorers have been recalled after over 150 deaths (as well as over 1,100 reported incidents) have been linked to high speed blowouts on the vehicles to date. Another 1.4 million may be recalled as well.
The first question in the scandal is who is the primary blame for this mess. Jacques Nasser, Ford's CEO (and The Konformist Beast of the Month), insists in a self-serving manner, "This is a tire issue, not a vehicle issue." The American korporate media has followed suit, and left little doubt the fault should be pinned on Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. The vast majority of articles refer to the story as the "Firestone tire scandal." Obviously, Firestone appears at least partially culpable here (Goodyear tires on Explorers allegedly have had little problems), but a cynic would suggest that the real reason they're the focus of blame has more to do with two factors. First, Firestone is a Japanese owned company while Ford is American. Perhaps more important, Ford dwarfs Firestone in size, and thus has a greater influence over the media.
Left unsaid in the rush to blame Firestone for the tire blowouts is why they seemed to only be faulty on Ford Explorers. Perhaps it has something to do with Ford's recommendation to inflate the tires on Explorer sport-utility vehicles (SUV) at 26 pounds of air per square inch. Normally, owners are advised to keep tires at 30 psi, but Ford settled on the lower standard in 1989, after it found that the Explorer had a tendency to roll over at higher inflation levels. Underinflated tires increase the risk of tread separation: a Firestone executive stated during congressional hearings that 26 psi gave the Explorer "a very low safety margin." (Ford switched to 30 psi last month.)
Indecu (Venezuela's consumer protection agency, a country where 46 deaths have occured, second only to the United States) is investigating another explanation: the agency suspects that defects in Explorer suspension systems may have been a factor in the blowouts. Coincidentally, Ford has been changing shock absorbers on Venezuelan Explorer models since 1999: they unconvincingly insist this has nothing to do with any safety issues. Instead, Ford claims the change is to provide a rougher ride, which supposedly was demanded by consumers.
Whatever the case, Ford Motor now has on its hands their biggest scandal since the days of the Ford Pinto. In that seventies case study of corporate malfeasance, Ford (under the bullying demands of then VP Lee Iaccoca) rushed a car to the market which had fuel tank ruptures in 37 of 40 crash tests. Ford knew of its problems, but decided that it would be more cost-effective to allow deaths than make it safer. (They could have fixed the problem at just $10 per car.) As current Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader would put it while describing the benign in comparison Chevy Corvair, the Pinto was indeed "unsafe at any speed." As many as 900 people died in crashes over the fiasco. Iaccoca evaded criminal punishment and was later rewarded with the position of Chrysler CEO.
Nasser hasn't been as reckless as Lido, but his behavior clearly underscores that he just doesn't get it. In his weak attempt at PR via commercials, he tries to come off as a fellow man of the people, while wearing suits that Johnny Cochran would consider extravagant. He would later brag of owning three explorers himself in the ad, not a good way to come off as a well-meaning innocent victim rather than a participant in mass homicide. If he plays his cards wrong, Nasser may become the biggest symbol of Detroit cluelessness since Iaccoca and GM's Roger Smith were handing out pink slips like the Vatican passes out holy wafers.
Of course, there's another element to all this that may dwarf the entire Explorer scandal. Since being introduced in 1990, the Explorer has been the best-selling SUV on the U.S. market and has been a leader in making the SUV fashionable. As Intellectualcapital.com pointed out, "Ford's U.S. SUV sales totaled 768,743 vehicles in 1999, a steady climb of 540,199 more units than those sold in 1990. Ford also has expanded the company's SUV lineup, from two models in 1990 to six in 2001." SUVs gobble more gasoline and emit more pollution than passenger vehicles, and as Ford itself admitted earlier this year in a report, are "directly contributing to rising greenhouse gas levels and global climate change." Considering the effects that pollution and other environmental wastes have on populations, as well as the effects on the Third World with higher gas prices, 150 deaths are chump change in comparison. People paying for skyrocketing prices at the pump right now are feeling the effects of this same syndrome.
Incredibly, Ford presented their report on SUVs, titled "Connecting With Society," as a slick PR move, in which they feigned concern for the effects of their boondoggle. Terry Bresnihan, director of environmental strategy for Ford, termed the report as a "leadership action." Their mea culpa was as disingenuous as their feign of denial over prior knowledge with the tire scandal, admitting that "with a few exceptions, its products are not industry leaders in fuel economy." Their excuse: they have no choice over the matter, since they are at the whim of consumers who demand SUVs, a phenomena the auto industry has absolutely no control over.
Sure. In the 1998 issue 16 of Steamshovel Press, Martin Kauffman wrote what may be the finest article ever in the esteemed counterculture conspiracy magazine, titled "The Manhattan Project to Manufacture the First Yuppies." In it, Kauffman persuasively shows how the entire Yuppie movement was conceived, created and promoted to transform the sixties generation into mindless servants of the status quo in exchange for material wealth. The process was done via the New York Times and New York Magazine, which extolled the yuppie ethics before they became chic.
To think that the promotion of Yuppie values ended with pate and Louis Vutton bags would be naive. That the SUV soon became a nineties staple of the Yuppie lifestyle (as well as the "soccer mom") appears to be a major marketing coup. After all, until ten years ago, light trucks were as much a staple of redneck culture as shotguns and beer: the transformation of them into a elitist symbol of mobility was a difficult feat. Then again, considering that the automobile industry spends $3 billion a year on advertising, it may not have been so difficult after all.
The end result: masses of drivers on the road in gas-guzzling tanks which they lack the skill to drive effectively. But why did Ford and the other motor companies push the SUV bandwagon? The Clean Air Act exempted light trucks from higher fuel standard requirements. Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, put it bluntly: "The law allowed them to pollute more and kill more because the vehicles were designed to haul hay, not lattes home from Starbucks." Ford Motor, not so incidentally, is heavily controlled and influenced by the oil industry.
Incredibly, many environmentalists applauded Ford for its self-serving report. Holly Ross of GreenCar.org stated, "This is the first public declaration I've seen. We're very excited." Others were not so congratulatory. As Intellectualcapital.com put it:
With the technology available today for more fuel-efficient engines, green groups claim that consumers could shave as much as 50% or more off their current gas bill each year. Becker said the Ford Explorer, which currently gets 19 miles to a gallon of gasoline, could get 34 miles per gallon with a $935 investment per car in better technology. The Excursion, Ford's largest SUV, gets only 10 miles per gallon in the city.
Even more incredibly, despite the scandal (as well as rising gas prices), Explorer sales are actually still rising this year. And that's before Ford has even tried a truly effective disinformation campaign, such as hiring John Stossel (or a Stossel wanna-be) as a hack to dismiss the 150 deaths as "statistically insignificant," an example of "junk science" and "hysteria." Obviously, the Beast that Nasser serves so well is hardly down for the count.
In any case, we salute Jacques Nasser as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Jacques!!!
Update: On October 10, it was revealed that, contrary to Ford's insistent claims, Explorers equipped with Goodyear tires were indeed unsafe in their own right. This wipes out a main defense of Ford Motor in their claims that they aren't the culprit here. Stay tuned.
"Connecting With Society," Ford Motor, May 11, 2000
"The Manhattan Project to Manufacture the First Yuppies," Martin Kauffman, Steamshovel Press # 16 (1998)
Corporate Crime and Violence: Big Business and the Abuse of Public Trust, Russel Mokhiber
The Big Book of Scandal, Jonathan Vankin
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