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Ford looks to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy to bolster sales in France

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, model, chanteuse and former French first lady, has given up show business to pursue her true passion: coaching a provincial soccer team.

That, anyway, is what a new marketing video starring Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy would have you believe.

It is all part of a conceptually abstract ad campaign by Ford Motor, which hopes her aura can create an allure for its brand in France that its cars have been unable to do on their own. Ford, whose vehicles are popular in many parts of Europe, has only an anemic market share — 5 percent — in France.

The video, which had its online premiere on Wednesday, imagines that Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy has secretly hired a no-talent doppelgänger to take her place at singing gigs. When the stand-in (Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy, playing a somewhat mousy version of herself) is booed off the stage, she calls the real singer and begs her to come back.

Ford sales in the United States rose 5 percent in August, helped by the F-150 pickup and the Edge.

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But Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy, in this script, has already embarked on a new life. "That's all behind me now," she says into her phone. Cut to a locker room in the hinterlands where she is chewing out a ragtag group of soccer players. "What I saw on the field last week was not soccer!" she yells.

No Ford cars appear in the two-minute spot, and the company is never mentioned, which raises the question of how Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy fits into the company's attempt to sell more Fords to the French.

Ford executives say they are trying to tap into what market research told them was a longing among a certain affluent segment of the French population eager to quit the urban rat race and start fresh.

A link at the end of the video takes viewers to a website, prendreunvirage.fr, ("prendre un virage" means "take a turn") that contains real information on how a stressed-out Parisian could begin a new life raising medicinal herbs in the Loire Valley, for example, or become proprietor of a rustic five-room pension in the Pyrenees. By the way, the best vehicle for this career transplant would be a Ford Kuga midsize S.U.V.

Executives say that Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy is not becoming a Ford pitch woman. She will not, for example, appear in commercials draped over the hood of a Mustang. Instead, Ford is hoping the video with Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy, whose husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, was president of France from 2007 to 2012, will draw attention to a follow-up advertising campaign focused on cars.

Ford planned a news media event for Wednesday at a former distillery near Paris to showcase new or recently introduced models and publicize the company's focus on the French market.

"If you're a 5 percent player, you really need to make some noise to get noticed," said Roelant de Waard, Ford of Europe's vice president for marketing, sales and service.

In an era where car companies strive to design vehicles and marketing that can travel anywhere in the world, the Ford campaign is unusual in its appeal specifically to French sensibilities. The effort reflects the importance of France as the third-largest car market in Europe behind Germany and Britain, but also the company's awareness of Ford's scant Gallic appeal.

Ford is the best-selling brand in Britain, with more than 14 percent of the market. It has a 7 percent share in the German market, which is considered respectable in the country that producers such globally popular brands as Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes.

But France is dominated by Renault, Peugeot and Citroën, which together have more than half the market, although they are often weak outside their home turf. Ford needs to sell more cars in France to become consistently profitable in Europe, where the company reported a loss of 14 million euros, or about $15.6 million, in the second quarter of this year.

Ford executives concede that the company is simply not on the mental GPS for many French drivers, a perception confirmed by random conversations with Parisians.

"I barely know anything about Ford," said Pierre Renucci, 42, a self-employed businessman in Paris. He drives a compact Daimler Smart in the city and a Volkswagen S.U.V. on weekend trips out of town. "It's not that they have a bad image in France — they just have no image at all."

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After extensive market research, Ford concluded that there were a substantial number of well-off French professionals who dreamed of simpler lives outside the big cities. This group, the data showed, was also more open to non-French car brands.

"They are reaching a life stage where they are looking for something different," said Paul Flanagan, Ford's managing director for France. "We wanted to tap into that."

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The company sees Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy as a believable embodiment of the marketing conceit, because she has already reinvented herself multiple times. She began working as a model while a teenager, pursued a career as a singer and songwriter, and then became the nation's first lady after her marriage to Mr. Sarkozy in 2008, a role in which she served as poised counterpart to her husband, who is considered more of a loose cannon.

Commercial work is nothing new for Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy, who also serves as the face of Bulgari, the jewelry maker. Still, no French politician can afford to be seen in a foreign-made car, and her work with Ford has the potential to generate criticism that she is being unpatriotic. Ford builds transmissions at two sites in France, but its main European vehicle assembly plants are in Germany and Spain.

Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy's husband remains active in politics as leader of the Republicans, a French center-right party, and is said to be planning a run for president in 2017.

Ford would not say how much Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy was paid to appear in the video, which was directed by Dominique Farrugia, a well-known comedian and director. The video was created by the Paris office of Blue Hive, a unit of the advertising conglomerate WPP. And Ford is not buying television time to broadcast the video, hoping instead that it will go viral on the Internet.

Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy contributed some of her own ideas to the script, according to Ford, including a scene in which she berates one of her players for wearing a pair of large headphones while she is talking. "What do you think you're doing, parking airplanes?" she yells in his ear.

Ford is not relying solely on Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy to propel its quest for more French buyers. The campaign coincides with the introduction of numerous new and refreshed models, including an update of the compact EcoSport S.U.V. due this year. Ford expects the EcoSport to do well in France because of the growing popularity of S.U.V.s, as well as a French preference for small cars.

The new cars that Ford is introducing in Europe are aimed at rural and suburban drivers, who are the backbone of the French car market. City residents are an increasingly tough sell because of the growth of car-sharing services and the cost and hassle of parking.

Agnès Panquiault, a Parisian who works for a Canadian technology company, said she would probably not replace her aging Peugeot minivan when it wears out. "During weekdays, I only use it to drop off my children at school," Ms. Panquiault said. "These days, having a car in Paris is a luxury."

Ford has upgraded its French dealer network, and it hopes to generate positive publicity by competing next year, for the first time since 1969, in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the legendary endurance race. Even with help from the former first lady, though, Ford executives expect that building market share in France will take years.

Mr. Flanagan, the head of Ford in France, said, "Carla's video is very much one stage of the journey."