WASHINGTON -- Leaving no talent untapped in its quest for perfection, the Ford Motor Co. asked Marianne Moore, one of America's foremost poets in the 1950s, to suggest a name for the product it would debut in late summer, 50 years ago. She replied: "May I submit Utopian Turtletop? Do not trouble to answer unless you like it."
Ford instead named the product for Henry Ford's late son Edsel. The Edsel would live 26 months.
The short, unhappy life of that automobile is rich in lessons, and not only for America's beleaguered automobile industry. The principal lesson is: Most Americans are not as silly as a few Americans suppose.
No industry boomed more in the 1950s than the manufacturing of social criticism excoriating Americans for their bovine "conformity," crass "materialism" and mindless manipulability at the hands of advertising's "hidden persuaders." Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders" was atop The New York Times best-seller list as Edsels arrived in showrooms. No consumer product in history had been the subject of so much "scientific" psychology-based market research.
Remember the basketball coach who said of his team, "We're short but we're slow"? The Edsel was ugly but riddled with malfunctions. So many malfunctions that some people suspected sabotage at plants that had previously assembled Fords and Mercurys. Those two Ford divisions perhaps hoped the Edsel would bomb.
"It was," wrote John Brooks, a student of American business, in The New Yorker, "clumsy, powerful, dowdy, gauche, well-meaning -- a de Kooning woman." Chrome seemed to be piled upon chrome. Potential buyers recoiled from the vertical egg-shaped grill which reminded them of a toilet seat. The transmission was worked by push buttons placed -- convenience sacrificed on the altar of novelty -- in the center of the steering column. The larger Edsels weighed more than two tons, were 219 inches long -- longer than the grandest Oldsmobiles -- and 80 inches wide. These were not the cars for a year in which the surprise success was American Motors' little Rambler.
By Sunday, Oct. 13, barely more than a month after the Edsel's debut, anemic sales caused the company to pre-empt "The Ed Sullivan Show" with a Sunday evening Edsel extravaganza featuring Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. But there was no sales spurt. Nine days earlier, the Soviet Union had launched its first Sputnik satellite, provoking a crisis of confidence in America's technological prowess and a reaction against chrome-laden barges as emblems of national self-indulgence. On Nov. 27, Manhattan's only Edsel dealer gave up his franchise and switched to selling Ramblers.
In the spring of 1958, S.I. Hayakawa, a professor of semantics (and later a Republican U.S. senator from California), ascribed the Edsel's failure to the Ford executives' excessive confidence in the power of motivational research to enable them to predict -- and modify -- Americans' behavior. In their attempt to design a car that would cater to customers' sexual fantasies, status anxieties and the like, Ford's deep thinkers had neglected to supply good transportation.
"Only the psychotic and the gravely neurotic act out their irrationalities and their compensatory fantasies," Hayakawa wrote. "The trouble with selling symbolic gratification via such expensive items ... is the competition offered by much cheaper forms of symbolic gratification, such as 'Playboy' (fifty cents a copy), 'Astounding Science Fiction' (thirty-five cents a copy), and television (free)."
In 1958, with the Edsel already turned to ashes, John Kenneth Galbraith, with bad timing comparable to the launch of the Edsel, published "The Affluent Society." It asserted that manufacturers, wielding all-powerful advertising, were emancipated by the law of supply and demand because advertisers could manufacture demand for whatever manufacturers wished to supply.
This theory buttressed the liberal project of expanding government in the name of protecting incompetent Americans from victimization, and having government supplant the market as the allocator of wealth and opportunity. But all of Ford's then-mighty marketing prowess could not keep the Edsel from being canceled in 1959. Brooks calculated that it would have been cheaper for Ford to skip the Edsel and give away 110,000 Mercurys.
Today, the United Auto Workers union and General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are trying to reverse the slide of the American automobile industry. Fifty Septembers ago, the country was atingle with anticipation of a new product that turned out to be a leading indicator of the slide. As Detroit toils to undo some contractual provisions that have burdened the companies with crippling health care and pension costs, it should remember the real lesson of 1957: Americans are more discerning and less herdable than their cultured despisers suppose, so what matters most is simple. Good products.
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