The Elon Musk legacy - A 21st-century Henry Ford?

By D.A. Gougherty |

As someone who grew up in southeastern Michigan, I was surrounded by the Ford Motor Company. My father worked there for 40 years, and except for my mother, everyone in my immediate family worked at Ford for some period of time, along with many extended family members. 

With this exposure to Ford for my whole life, you would have thought I had a deep knowledge of the company. Growing up in the 50s through the 70s in the Detroit area, some of the less savory parts of FOMOCO were glossed over.

This body of knowledge changed in the mid-70s when I was enrolled at the University of Michigan Dearborn campus, which, ironically, was located on Henry Ford's estate known as Fairlane. I learned more about Henry Ford's political activities during a marketing class. 

Even though I was fully aware of FOMOCO's union-busting activities, his goon squad headed by Harry Bennett, it was only when enrolled in college did his other business interests in the Dearborn Independent newspaper came into sharp focus. That publication, which at one time had a national circulation of 900,000, was filled with anti-Semitic vitriol.

So, how did a marketing class expose me to Henry Ford's anti-Semitism? First, the instructor was an adjunct professor with the last name of Guggenheim, who was, yes, distantly related to the Guggenheim and was Jewish.  

It is important to note that although he was Jewish, Mr. Guggenheim discussed Ford's anti-Semitism from a marketing perspective. Also, for his daytime job, Mr. Guggenheim was an executive with the Detroit-based advertising agency Campbell Ewald, which at the time handled the Chevrolet account - the same people that gave us the commercial jingle See the USA in Your Chevrolet and Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet. 

Guggenheim noted that Henry Ford's anti-Semitism repelled people of the Jewish faith and others away from the brand. Even though Edsel Ford and then Henry Ford II repudiated the old man's anti-semitism, the damage to the brand, at least with Jewish consumers, was done.

From a marketing perspective, Guggenheim's point was that a person so closely associated with a brand staking out a hateful position would only cause damage. Even though FOMOCO became part of the arsenal of democracy during WWII and was able to repair its image, it is part of Henry Ford and his company's permanent legacy.

That brings us to our modern-day Henry Ford, Elon Musk. Like Ford, Musk is a brilliant businessperson, inventor, and, unfortunately, a proprietor of misinformation and hate.  

The most obvious comparison between Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent is Musk's ownership of X [Twitter]. Musk recently amplified an anti-Semitic trope on X, claiming Jews were seeking to replace white people in America, which, by the way, was the same rhetoric used in the violent 2017 anti-Jewish protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.  

Not surprisingly, many major brands have paused or completely discontinued their advertising on the quickly diminishing social media platform, and other popular contributors have left X altogether. What logical business manager wants their brand alongside tropes against Jews or any other hateful content, especially when it is amplified by the owner?

While Musk has sole ownership of X, his other high-visibility business, Tesla, does have shareholders. You can't help but wonder if Musk's propagation of hate and anti-Semitism will eventually affect sales of the popular EVs.

How will the board of directors react if Musk's activities on X begin to affect Tesla sales? If what is happening at X is any indication, the Tesla brand could be damaged, and shareholders, being shareholders, could squeeze Musk out of the company he started. 

Regardless of what happens at X and Tesla, like Ford did with the Dearborn Independent, Musk's behavior on X displays the hubris that some people acquire with wealth. As Henry Ford did in the 20th century, the legacy Musk is creating for X, if it survives, Tesla and himself is the 21st-century version of Henry Ford.  

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1 comment

D.J. Blutarsky said...

Anti-semitism aside, Ford also produced boats and planes during both World Wars and Musk builds rockets that carry spy satellites for our government. Unlike Ford however, Musk seems to have a little marijuana problem and I hope our government has an extended warranty on those rockets! 

When cars break down, a tow truck comes to the rescue. When rockets break down, look out below!

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