Why Doesn't Bill Ford Try For a Little Historical Truth in Advertising?

Culture Watch

Mr. Renehan is the author of John Burroughs: An American Naturalist (Chelsea Green, 1992; Black Dome Press, 1998).

My daughter Katherine is the only 11-year-old in the country who recognizes on-sight the ancient American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921). And she has lately been making a great many sightings."Daddy, there he is again!" she shouts. Upon this cue I look up from my newspaper, turn to the television, and confront Burroughs's white-bearded grin as he sits at a picnic table with Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison. The newsreel footage, which dates from 1917, has been cleaned up using digital technology. It looks quite crisp.

I wrote John Burroughs's biography in 1992. This explains Katherine's abnormally high awareness of the long-forgotten JB. Although quite obscure today, Burroughs achieved great celebrity in his own time. He wrote more than 25 books. He boasted close personal friendships with such giants as Walt Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. He received honorary doctorates from Yale and other major universities. He participated in the Harriman Expedition to Alaska. After he died, dozens of towns around the country named schools in his memory. The American Museum of Natural History even put some of his personal effects on permanent display.

Now he's been resurrected ... somewhat. The occasion is a new, history-oriented ad campaign from the Ford Motor Company: a series of television spots narrated by current company-head, Bill Ford.

In one of the spots titled"Discover," Ford discourses on the bit of corporate history that involves Burroughs:"My two great-grandfathers, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, used to take these camping trips every year with Thomas Edison and whoever the president at the time was. They called themselves 'the Vagabonds.' They sort of invented SUVs." Ford goes on to say that he loves the outdoors himself and uses an SUV to get there."SUVs are what people want, and we do them better than anybody else."

Although unnamed in the piece, Burroughs was a regular participant in the"Vagabond" adventures. He and Henry Ford were friendly, and shared an enthusiasm for bird-watching. Thus Burroughs is all over the footage that makes up the commercial. And this is ironic. SUVs are gas-guzzlers. They contribute greatly to the greenhouse gases that foster global warming. Burroughs, were he alive today, would not be the SUV-type.

Writing in the teens of the 20th century, John Burroughs looked forward to what solar power might do to help clear the poison-filled skies of American cities. He wrote that instead of burning the oil and the coal of the earth, mankind should come"above the surface, for the white coal, the smokeless oil, for the winds and the sunshine." Then, he said,"our very minds ought to be cleaner." Throughout his life he'd always been skeptical of technology."We are far removed from nature and life by the whole distance of our wealth and refinement," he wrote in 1866, when he was 29-years old."The earth is overlaid with inventions and improvements .... A man may live now and travel without hardly coming in contact with the earth or air. He can go around the world in a parlor. Life is intensely artificial."

Burroughs realized that science combined with forethought and vision could achieve splendid things. But"where there is no vision," he wrote,"science will not save us. In such a case our civilization is like an engine running without a headlight." Elsewhere he commented:"We live in an age of iron, and have all we can do to keep the iron from entering our souls."

Burroughs predicted that there would come a time when man's scientific knowledge and"the vast system of artificial things with which it has enabled him to surround himself" would cut short"history upon the planet." How sensitive to ecological concerns are those who manufacture, sell and drive SUVs? Not very. And how appropriate is it for Bill Ford to use John Burroughs's likeness to sell SUVs? Not very.

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J. Bartlett - 4/27/2002

There are more efficient ways for people to travel than to have millions of slowly crawling hunks of 95% metal and plastic and 5% human flesh clogging our streets and polluting our air every rush hour. This is a scientific fact and obvious to anyone who has ever lived in a city which was constructed prior to auto-domination, and is not a matter of some personal preference. If people want to drive something several times as big and powerful as that required to negotiate their daily gridlock, that is a choice they are free to make in our society, but necessity does not have the slightest connection to that choice. If Ford wants to make an ahistorical commercial, we also grant them that right, as we grant Edward Renehan the right to expose Ford's hypocrisy.

Larry Crump - 4/26/2002

Is it not hypocritical to suggest that it is dangerous for private corporations to be in the business of history education, while deciding for the rest of us that SUV's are unnecessary?

Trina McDaniel - 4/25/2002

Having known nothing about John Burroughs before reading this essay, my comments may be ignorant, but...is it possible that Burroughs knew Ford and Edison were giants in technological industries and recognized an opportunity to share his views and influence theirs?

Dan Holbrook - 4/25/2002

I don't want to be too obnoxious here, but if Burroughs was so anti-technology, why did he hang around with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison? And why would he participate in mechanized outings? Maybe he "loved the sinner and hated the sin"?

aaron frucher - 4/23/2002

While the Author is 100% correct in pointing out that Burroughs would turn over in his grave in respounce to the enviormentally disastorious effects companies like Ford and their customers are creating with suv emmissions, I think the commercials bring up additional questions about corporate missuse of history. As an undergraduate I wrote my theisis on the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." This blatent forgery, maditory reading in Hitler's Schools, a bible of the extremeist right, and published in Ford's "Dearborne Independant," claims to prove an international Jewish conspiracy to subjegate the world's Gentiles. It is currently published throughout the Arab world as justification for the terror directed at the West and Israel. For a CEO of a multi-national Corporation to be advritising itself as honoring the vision of such virilant anti-semetic, racist, robber barons as Ford, and even Edison, is not only offensive, but in the light of the current global situation where acurate historical perspective is paramount, actually quite dangerious.

J. Bartlett - 4/22/2002

This episode should caution us against moving too quickly or too far in putting history teaching, and education generally, into the hands of private corporations. Meanwhile, why not call S.U.Vs what they are: Spectacularly Unnecessary Vehicles ?