Bionic Woman Wired for Success With Region's Ford Sales

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As television's Bionic Woman in the 1970s, actress Lindsay Wagner fought spies and extraterrestrial beings. And for the last 11 years, the ex-superwoman has been moving the metal for Ford Motor Co. dealers in Southern California.

The long-running ad campaign featuring Wagner has survived recessions, threats from imports, and--oh, yes--dramatic changes in Wagner's hair color. And the dealers recently extended her contract for two more years, agreeing to pay her between $600,000 and $700,000 for television and radio commercials through 2000.

"We tested her against other spokespeople, put her up against [Mercedes-Benz endorser] Cybill Shepherd, and the bottom line is, she came out on top," said Carson Ford dealer Don Kott. "She's friendly, approachable, and there are no negatives to her."

And, evidently, she's persuasive. Since the campaign began in 1987, Ford has edged by General Motors Co. in Southern California, according to data from R.L. Polk, the automotive research firm. Nationally, Ford ranks second in new-vehicle sales to GM.

"She's very effective," said Steve Shuken, a Woodland Hills dealer with Ford, Lexus and Honda dealerships. "It's unusual to have customers recall your ads. But you hear an awful lot of talk about Lindsay."

Backed by a $25-million annual media budget, the Wagner ads have become a regular part of prime-time viewing in thousands of homes from Santa Maria to the Mexican border. The format of the commercials seldom varies: A stylish Wagner rhapsodizes over a Ford car, truck or van on an otherwise vacant commercial set.

Duane Sprague, an automotive marketing consultant based in Huntington Beach, says viewers remember the spots precisely because they are so similar. That's why, after 40 years, western scenes and rugged cowboys represent Marlboro cigarettes, Sprague notes.

"Repetition builds awareness," he said.

And using a celebrity like Wagner in automotive ads, Sprague says, raises the credibility of dealers, who--deserved or not--often are stereotyped as fast-talking hucksters.

"Consumers are wary that they will be manipulated or misled . . . dealers have to overcome this stereotyping," said Sprague. "Having a known spokesman or celebrity--whether from sports or entertainment--adds credibility. It is an implied endorsement of the company or product."

Dealers tapped Wagner in 1987 because they hoped a female celebrity would help them connect with women; new research showed women not only purchased cars for themselves but also greatly influenced family buying decisions. Dealers felt their previous endorser, actor Telly Savalas--now deceased--was "too macho, too masculine . . . we needed someone more contemporary," said Shuken.

Wagner's former TV role as the mechanical Bionic Woman seemed to fit with pitching motor vehicles, said Cliff Einstein of Los Angeles-based Dailey & Associates, the dealers' ad agency. And because Wagner "wasn't a really big star," she wouldn't outshine Ford products, Einstein noted.

The Wagner spots are striking in their simplicity--no special effects, no elaborate sets, no stunning landscapes. They are economical, produced for about one-third the cost of a typical car commercial.

Wagner, 49, sees the spots as distinct vignettes in which she takes on different roles. In a 1989 commercial for the Taurus station wagon, for example, Wagner is a parent who needs a vehicle with room for kids, pets and cargo. In a 1995 spot for the Ranger truck, Wagner is a helpless female distraught about breaking a fingernail. Dressed in a white jumpsuit in a 1988 ad for the since-discontinued Probe coupe, Wagner is a vision from the future.

"I didn't want to be your typical spokesperson. 'Hi, I'm Lindsay, and this is my new car.' I wanted to create spots with personality and humor," she said.

Vehicle colors are chosen to set Wagner off to best advantage. So light blue and yellow are out, says Einstein. Black, navy blue and red are in.

And Wagner has veto power over her lines. During the filming of a new Ranger truck spot in Hollywood last month, the final lines were rewritten because the actress deemed them too corny. Instead of having Wagner boast that at Ford dealerships, the "doors are always open," the commercial ends with a pun that also refers to the soon-to-be-introduced four-door truck. "Our doors are open," Wagner says. "All four of them."

One change not in any script was Wagner's hair color. Naturally blond, Wagner dyed her hair red for a 1995 TV movie. After dealers made a batch of ads with a red-headed Wagner, she dyed her hair brown to cover her blond roots until the red grew out.

"The dealers freaked out . . . they had a heart attack," said Wagner. "They didn't know what to make of it. I felt the audience would be OK with it, which is what happened."

Her changing appearance, in fact, created a buzz about the Ford ads, not only in Southern California, but also in British Columbia, where since 1992 dealers have used the actress in spots created for that market.

"You'd hear comments from consumers--'What color is her hair now?' Ironically, that played well for us," said Todd Ochsner of Young & Rubicam in Vancouver, the agency for dealers there. "It was well received--after everyone got over the shock and stopped adjusting their TV sets."

1997 was a strong year for Ford in Southern California. According to new-vehicle registration data from R.L. Polk, Ford captured 23.4% of the new-car market in the eight counties that make up the region: Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego and Imperial. General Motors ended the year with 21.6%.

Nationally in 1997, General Motors had a strong lead on Ford, according to Polk data. General Motors had 31.2% of the U.S. new-car market in 1997 compared with Ford's 25% share. (Both companies have smaller market shares in California due to intense competition from imports.)

Wagner, now back to blond after three years, says she never thought the Ford campaign would continue so long. She says she's committed to Ford and drives its vehicles--as part of her contract she received an Expedition truck for her own use and an Explorer, which her sons' nanny drives. Nonetheless, Wagner says she is concerned about global gasoline usage and is frustrated that the auto industry "hasn't moved fast enough to develop ecologically sound vehicles" using alternative fuels.

"That's my issue. But it's not with Ford directly," Wagner said last month, during a break in filming spots for the four-door Ranger and three other vehicles. "It's with the entire industry."

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