When you live in a capitalistic society where someone is always trying to sell you something, it’s easy to view advertising through a lens of cynicism. And with so few Black women being seen in front of or behind the camera, it’s no surprise our response to many campaigns is “Why should I care?” Last month, Ford gave all of us a reason to with its “Built Phenomenally” commercials which were produced entirely by a team of Black women, from the voice over to the directing, styling and even Ford’s leadership. And we recently found out there’s even more to this unique story of representation from the motor company.
While we knew FREE THE WORK, an organization that does just that — frees up work for underrepresented content creators, was responsible for helping director Kanyessa McMahon land the gig, what we didn’t know was this was McMahon’s first time working on a car campaign.
“In my career, a lot of opportunities have come from one person saying yes,” said the director who acknowledged “It was a big risk” for Ford to hire her given the majority of her experience has been in the world of sports, working on advertising campaigns for Nike and Adidas.
“You need one yes and you kind of have to rise to that occasion, McMahon explained at a media luncheon in LA, adding that Ford executives told her “There’s nothing on your reel that says you can do this except for the fact that you’re saying it.”
That confidence turned out to be enough and McMahon became the director for the “Own It” and “Built Phenomenally” commercial spots which have received an overwhelmingly positive response from consumers. Though her simple approach to the campaign was telling Ford’s multicultural marketing manager Dee Guerrero and the head of brand strategy and growth audience marketing Raj Register what she would want to see in a commercial, it turned out what McMahon wanted to see was also what a lot of Black and brown girls needed to see.
Partnering with Made in Her Image and Girls Make Beats, Ford invited two groups of girls to witness the making of the commercials. The young women got to follow costume designer Marci Rodgers as she picked out wardrobe options for the diverse cast of Black talent featured, watch Lola Okanlawon do everyone’s makeup, and also see McMahon direct, which opened their eyes to a new world of possibilities in production.
“On set someone said, ‘There’s a Black ballerina?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and they said ‘wooow,” McMahon shared. “They could see all of these things and they could see bigger girls and dark girls and girls with different hair and twists and all of this stuff and kind of see it fleshed out. For me, it was really, really powerful to kind of see it happening immediately; not just hearing about it, but seeing their eyes.”
A glimpse of that magical awakening can be seen in the other group’s interactions with Angela Bassett as they watch her tape the voiceovers for the commercials and she talks to them about not letting the world trick them into believing they are “less than.”
During the luncheon, Rodgers shared that her family being able to see her in the “Built Phenomenally” campaign added a layer of understanding and appreciation for the work she does. And it’s clear from the response of the girls on set that the project was a dream come true for all involved. As Nia, one of the girls from Made In Her Image put it in the video below, “That tells me that I can be behind the camera, not just in front of it. Now I know that I can edit, I can film, I can direct. It just gives me more of that power to see your vision come to life.”