Produced by JWT India, a subsidiary of the WPP Group, and aimed at the Indian market, the three Ford Figo ads show variations of the same theme, with one celebrity in the small car’s front seat and three people bound and gagged in the boot.
One ad portrays former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in the driver’s seat with three women – two of whom are reportedly caricatures of Nicole Minetti and Karima El Mahroug, both associated with Berlusconi’s recent political and legal troubles – tied up in the back.
A second ad depicts Paris Hilton with the Kardashian sisters in the Figo’s boot, while a third has former Formula One driver Michael Schumacher up front and Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in the rear.
All the ads use the tagline, "Leave your worries behind with Figo's extra-large boot."
According to Indian newspaper The Hindu, the JWT India team posted the Berlusconi ad onto the creative advertising website Ads of the World without official approval.
Ford India apologised for the ad in a statement to The Hindu, stressing that the ad had not been run anywhere.
"We deeply regret this incident and agree with our agency partners that it should have never happened."
"The posters are contrary to the standards of professionalism and decency within Ford and our agency partners. Together with our partners, we are reviewing approval and oversight processes to help ensure nothing like this ever happens again."
The WPP Group also made an apology via a statement.
“We deeply regret the publishing of posters that were distasteful and contrary to the standards of professionalism and decency within WPP Group.
These were never intended for paid publication and should never have been created, let alone uploaded to the internet. This was the result of individuals acting without proper oversight and appropriate actions have been taken within the agency where they work to deal with the situation.”
Industry journal Automotive News reports that Ford spokesman Chris Preuss said the ads were part of a creative exercise by JWT's India unit, intended as concepts to test reactions for an advertising competition. Preuss said they were not commissioned by Ford and not intended to be part of a Ford campaign.
According to The Hindu, the ads have since been deleted and were not used commercially.
The Ford Figo is manufactured by Ford India in Chennai and is based on the Mark 5 European Ford Fiesta.