April Vehicle Sales: Ford in Deep Denial over AFA Boycott, with Old Media’s Help

In an unusual move last Friday, Ford decided that it couldn't wait for the month to end before it told us how bad it was going to be -- for the whole industry:

Ford Motor Co. said on Friday that U.S. auto industry sales to date in April were "terrible" as consumer confidence was hit by a slow housing market and rising gas prices.

..... Pipas said industry volume appeared to be down 10 percent to date before seasonal adjustment, but expected Ford's U.S. retail share to hold steady around 13 percent.

After an entire weekend where Pipas's message was spread virtually without criticism, the April vehicle-sales reality turned out to be quite different (the first figure is adjusted for the two-day difference in the number of "selling days" in April 2007 [24] vs. April 2006 [26]; the second figure in parens is not adjusted for that difference):
- General Motors: -2.2% (-9.5%)
- Toyota: +3.7% (-4.3%)
- Ford: -5.7% (-12.9%)
- Daimler Chrysler: +1.3% (the unadjusted decline number didn't seem correct)
- Honda: -1.6% (-9.1%; obtained from another source)
- Nissan: -11.1% (-18%)

Though there is certainly little to celebrate, the only two "terribles" I see in this list are Ford and the much smaller Nissan.

It appears that Ford and Pipas were playing a "let's get ahead of the bad news" gambit last Friday. "Clever" -- More likely than not, people who are paying only passing attention to the news now think that the entire industry is in the tank, when the truth is that Ford's suffering is disproportionate in comparison to most of the other makers, even the other members of the old Big Three.

You almost have to feel for Mr. Pipas. He surely must know that he can only play the misdirection card he used this past weekend one time, and that his credibility has just taken a beating. But what do you do when your employer makes dumb moves like this in the teeth of a growing boycott (with just over 700,000 petition signers, according to the American Family Association's home page) that is keeping 10% or more of potential buyers (likely some of the most profitable ones) away from its showrooms, and you're the poor guy who has to scramble to come up with reasons other than the boycott for a sales plunge?

For now, Pipas can count on Old Media not to attribute any of Ford's difficulties to the American Family Association boycott. The Associated Press was so hard-pressed to explain Ford's situation that one of its reports led with a statement that could have come straight from the "Department of Redundancy Department":

Ford Motor Co. on Tuesday reported dismal U.S. sales in April, 12.9 percent below the same month last year due largely to slumping car sales. Anlaysts expect lower sales industrywide for the month.

The trouble with that statement is that trucks were "slumping" by almost the same percentage as the company's overall sales:

Ford's F-series pickup trucks, traditionally the top-selling vehicles in the U.S., were down 12.4 percent in April.

I get the sense that Ford's media friends know that if that the seeming taboo against giving the AFA boycott any visibility ever gets busted, the company will be forced to immediately tackle the problem and defuse the boycott (we can't have that!), or it will quickly be look-out-below time in Dearborn. In the meantime, the not-so-slow bleed continues to do damage -- possibly permanent -- to the automaker's long-term prospects.

Wal-Mart, when faced last year with a post-Thanksgiving shopping boycott by AFA, solved their problem and formally abandoned the "corporate social responsibility" nonsense, along with the baggage it brought. The retailer appears to have suffered no serious consequences for having done so. When are Alan "$28 Million" Mullally and his executive team going to wake up?

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

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