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updated 4/2/2004 3:08:33 PM ET 2004-04-02T20:08:33

An online advertising campaign for Ford has gone badly wrong, leaving the U.S. carmaker accused of bad taste over the depiction of its new SportKa decapitating a cat.

Ford's European operation and Ogilvy & Mather, its advertising agency, began an investigation  on Thursday into how a proposed ad — which both insisted had been rejected — had begun circulating on the Internet.

Animal protection groups attacked the "abhorrent" advert, which shows the ginger cat having its head cut off by the sunroof before its body slides down the bonnet.

The car maker said the advert was conceived as part of a "viral" campaign, where short videos are released on to the Internet and redistributed by e-mail, as people find them funny. But it insisted it was not meant to be developed. As an alternative, a clip showing a comedy pigeon being thwacked by the bonnet, had been chosen. That ad caused controversy among some pigeon fanciers and was also condemned by animal rights groups.

"It was done as a proposal somewhere deep down in the bowels of the agency," Ford said. "As soon as we saw it we said absolutely not. We are appalled — this is not something we want to be associated with."

The concept of viral advertising has become popular, as people are thought to be more likely to pay attention to e-mails sent by their friends. But Ford's experience shows that, just as with computer viruses, viral ads cannot be controlled.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said the ad was "distasteful." "The concept should never have been mooted and we hope the outcry will send a clear message to advertising agencies that making fun out of cruelty is simply unacceptable."

Ford has been trying to build a "bad boy" image for the SportKa, an overpowered version of its tiny Ka pitched as "the Ka's evil twin". It flatly denied releasing the video deliberately to boost this image.

Competitors have already begun using the advert against Ford. Vauxhall, its biggest competitor in the U.K., said: "Vauxhall condemns acts of such blatant cruelty in a desperate attempt to sell cars."

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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