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The Flop Heard Round the World

Gazillions in Research

Ford's Edsel was the biggest bust in brand history. It didn't live up to the hype of its teaser ads and never gained the glamour of promotions such as this one for the 1958 Edsel Citation.
Ford's Edsel was the biggest bust in brand history. It didn't live up to the hype of its teaser ads and never gained the glamour of promotions such as this one for the 1958 Edsel Citation. (Plan59.com)

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The idea for the Edsel came from Ford executives who were thinking about market niches when they should have been thinking about cars.

They were worried that Ford owners who prospered in the postwar boom were trading in their cheap Fords for pricier Pontiacs and Buicks. They figured Ford needed a new line of medium-price cars, and they hired a bunch of motivational researchers to probe the psyche of the American car buyer.

The '50s were the glory days of motivational research, and Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research was the mecca of the trade. David Wallace, Ford's director of planning and a man with a PhD in sociology from Columbia, hired the bureau to find out why people bought the cars they bought. The bureau's researchers interviewed 800 people, inquiring about their preferences in everything from cars to cocktails, then produced a report revealing the hidden meaning of cars. Ford symbolized "rugged masculinity." Buick symbolized "upper class solidarity." Plymouth had a "weak image of plain respectability." And so on.

Wallace read the report and concluded that the new Ford should be touted as "the smart car for the younger executive or professional family on its way up."

That sounded reasonable. It was certainly better than touting it as a dumb car for families on the way down.

Next, Wallace dispatched his researchers to find the perfect name for the nonexistent vehicle that Ford had dubbed the "E-car," short for experimental car. The researchers buttonholed random Americans and asked then to blurt out their reactions to scores of possible names: Mars, Jupiter, Rover, Arrow, Dart, Ovation. The responses were tabulated and analyzed and the results were . . . inconclusive. So Wallace gathered a group of Ford executives in a room, turned out the lights and flashed scores of names at them. The results were . . . inconclusive.

After that, Wallace did what any sensible American auto executive would do in such a situation: He wrote to Marianne Moore, America's most famous female poet, and asked her to suggest names. She did. She suggested lots of names -- Intelligent Whale, Intelligent Bullet, Bullet Cloisonne, Ford Faberge, Mongoose Civique and, the pi?ce de r?sistance, Utopian Turtletop.

Wallace sent Moore a bouquet of roses and a card reading, "to our favorite turtletopper," but he did not choose any of her suggestions. Instead, Ford and its advertising agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, asked their employees to suggest names, promising a free "E-car" to the winner. The employees responded with 18,000 names. Among them was Edsel -- a tribute to Edsel Ford, who was the deceased son of Henry Ford, the company's legendary founder, and the father of Henry Ford II, the company's president.

The folks at Foote, Cone & Belding whittled the 18,000-name list down to a mere 6,000 names and presented them to a committee headed by Richard Krafve, the man running the E-car project.

"We don't want 6,000 names," Krafve grumbled. "We only want one."

The Foote, Cone & Belding folks slunk back to their lair and whittled some more. On Nov. 8, 1956, they presented a list of 10 names to a meeting of Ford's Executive Committee. The names included Corsair, Pacer, Ranger and Citation. The Executive Committee hated all of them. They grumbled for a while and finally Ernest Breech, Ford's chairman of the board, made the kind of instantaneous, intuitive decision touted in Malcolm Gladwell's best-selling 2005 book, "Blink."

"Why don't we just call it Edsel?" Breech said.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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