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Cries of Racism in Filming of Commercial Ensnare Ford in Actors' Strike

Stung by accusations of racism for having used makeup to darken the face of a white stunt driver in the filming of a television commercial, the Ford Motor Company said late yesterday that it would postpone making new commercials until a nationwide strike by unionized actors against advertising agencies is resolved. Ford also said it would review its makeup policies.

Ford, one of the nation's largest advertisers, acknowledged criticism by the actors' unions that its advertising agency, Young & Rubicam, darkened the nonunion driver's face during the filming of a commercial for the Lincoln LS sports sedan on Saturday in Palm Springs, Calif.

Jim Trainor, a spokesman for Ford's Lincoln-Mercury division, said that the company would not broadcast the disputed footage and that the company did not approve of any activity that could be construed as misrepresenting the ethnicity of an actor.

The unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, accused Ford of making the stunt driver appear to be a black man for a commercial that also featured a nonunion black actor outside the car during another sequence.

Mr. Trainor disavowed any racist intent and said the features had been darkened solely to make the driver less noticeable in the commercial.

Ford and Young & Rubicam had initially dismissed objections by the unions, which held a small protest in Los Angeles on Tuesday at the offices of the Ford Dealers Advertising Association of Southern California.

The actors' unions "know better than anyone that it is standard practice to conceal the features of the driver in a car commercial shoot," David Murphy, the president of Young & Rubicam's office in Irvine, Calif., said in a statement. "The focus of car commercials has always been the car and not the driver. In fact, a precision driver for car shoots typically wears dark clothing, gloves, turtle neck and sometimes even a ski mask to achieve a nondescript look."

Mr. Murphy added in the statement that the driving sequence featuring the stunt driver would be used in several commercials including both white and black actors outside the vehicle. But after a phone conversation with officials from the actors' unions, Ford executives and Young & Rubicam executives decided to discard the footage, halt filming during the strike and begin talks with the unions on makeup policies.

"It's a union labor issue, it's not a race issue," and Ford does not want to become the center of attention in the strike, Mr. Trainor said.

Mr. Trainor said that although it was common for automakers to want no more than a silhouette of a driver to be visible in a commercial, the use of makeup during the filming on Saturday had not been planned. "If you're in Palm Springs and the light is coming through the tinted glass more than you expected and you don't have a ski mask, then you might bronze the guy," he said.

Mr. Trainor initially said yesterday morning that the use of makeup was common, but later said Ford's advertising staff could not provide examples. Other advertising industry officials said the darkening of stunt drivers' faces with makeup had never been common. An official at another big auto advertising agency, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the strike, said his agency never used makeup, preferring tinted glass to make the driver less visible.

Peter M. DeLorenzo, a longtime auto advertising manager who now owns and runs autoextremist.com, a year-old Internet site for news on the auto industry and auto racing, said that using makeup to darken a stunt driver's features was unusual.

"I shot commercials for 20 years; we never did that," said Mr. DeLorenzo, who worked for four large auto advertising agencies during those years, although not for Young & Rubicam. "It was common to tint the glass just so that whoever was driving wasn't prominent."

The actors' unions, which initially accused Ford of having "revived the long-dead minstrel show," said they were pleased with the company's decision to suspend filming of television commercials.

Mr. Trainor said that during the strike, no new commercials would be filmed for Lincoln-Mercury or Ford brand cars and trucks or for Ford's corporate image campaign. He said he did not know if the European automakers owned by Ford -- Volvo, Jaguar and Aston Martin -- would also stop filming.

The strike began on May 1. Actors are now paid each time a commercial is shown on network television but earn only a flat fee for commercials used on cable. The actors want to be paid each time for all network and cable ads, but the ad agencies want to change all payments to a flat fee for all network and cable ads.

The incident was the latest flare-up in the strike. RSA U.S.A., a commercial production agency, was criticized by the union last month for having promoted the opening of an office in nonunion South Africa with an advertisement showing the bare breasts of a black woman.

The unions have also criticized as strike breakers the football players Kurt Warner and Terrell Davis for filming a nonunion Campbell's Soup ad and the basketball player Shaquille O'Neal for shouting "I'm going to Disneyland!" for an instant television commercial after the Los Angeles Lakers won the N.B.A. championship on Monday. Union membership is mandatory for all who appear in commercials, including athletes.

The dispute over the filming of the Ford commercial comes at an awkward time for the automaker, which is seeking greater public recognition as a progressive company on safety and environmental issues. Ford produces as many car and minivan models with the federal government's five-star crash rating as all other automakers combined. Tailpipe emissions from all sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks made by Ford are far cleaner than the law requires. And Ford acknowledged the safety and environmental drawbacks of sport utility vehicles at its annual meeting in Atlanta last month, vowing to improve the vehicles in both categories.

Ford had another embarrassing racial dispute four years ago in connection with advertising. The company and its advertising agency in Europe, Ogilvy & Mather, were criticized for having superimposed white faces on four blacks and a Sikh in a photo of British Ford workers that was used in a Ford campaign in Poland. Ford apologized and paid $2,300 to compensate the workers.


Keith Bradsher, The New York Times. June 22, 2000

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