You used to know where you were with car ads - smell the testosterone in every frame, feel the sticky leather, the breath-sucking power of acceleration, the exhilaration of the open road and ignore the identikit marque flagged at the end.

Now there's a make of car ad that wants to cuddle up, get all cosy and emotional, and sod all that manly stuff about speed and 0-60 and bhp and torque. Take the new Ford Focus Edge ad. Oh, it's a confusing little item, too sweet to be for a car, takes a couple of viewings to be convinced it really is about a hunk of metal to get you from A to B.

It's a chimerical, gentle piece, all slow-mo and lingering, which at least makes it stand out in the cacophony of the average ad break. The spot opens with a group of youths spraying the wall outside a fish and chip shop but, wait, it's not what you think ... they're painting over the graffiti. One of the tikes then gets his ball stuck in a tree and a little old granny shinnies up to yank it out for him. Same little old lady - probably so knackered by her tree-climbing expedition - is helped off the bus by the conductor.

Conductor then inadvertently stands next to a puddle, about to get soaked by passing car when a philanthropic passer-by whips out his brolly to offer protection, getting drenched himself for his trouble. But that's OK because the nice man is then rewarded in turn for his good deed by, erm, buying a Focus Edge. The voiceover about air conditioning, ABS and alloy wheels is a bit of a kick in the groin after the whimsy (could have sworn this was going to be an ad for chips). But there's a nice group cuddle with the car dealer at the end and the line: "The generously equipped Focus Edge. Pass it on."

For a company in as much do-do as Ford, it's a gentle and rather elegiac marketing assault. Ford is in an interesting place at the moment. It marked its 100th birthday last year with all the aches, pains and flirtations with the grave that you might associate with advanced age. By the close of 2003, Ford was expecting its European unit to lose $1.2 billion for the year, and analysts are forecasting a loss of $400 million in 2004.

Blame steadily shrinking sales, the failure to catch the new-generation diesel wave, fierce competition from the likes of Toyota, Nissan and Honda, and cheaper models from premium brands such as BMW and Audi. And where Ford does make a profit, the majority comes from its finance arm, Ford Motor Credit.

Standard and Poor's recently downgraded its credit rating for Ford to just above junk stock; for the first time Toyota has squeezed into second place in world sales behind General Motors; observers have been pondering whether Ford might just be heading for bankruptcy.

Ogilvy's new Focus ad is no fightback. Ford's problems run deep and until the company has resolved issues such as the feud between its British and German product development teams (which has hampered its ability to design new models), and sealed the restructuring of its sourcing, manufacturing and distribution systems, any marketing efforts will struggle to make inroads. Ford is a tarnished brand.

Having said that, the new Focus Edge work is one of the best Ford ads in quite some time. Sure, that's not much of an endorsement. Ford has churned out some absolute advertising crap in recent years (which might explain a few things, come to think of it). But Ogilvy hired James Sinclair from Lowe last year to pep up its creative on Ford. So the ad is a signal that when (if?) Ford can sort out its structural problems, there are small signs of a fresh marketing and advertising approach ready to grasp the opportunity.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Not in the automotive category, surely.

File under ... C for car ad ... to avoid confusion.

What would the chairman's wife say? "How nice to see people being nice

... now what was it advertising?"