Ford Motor Co., in a new ad campaign, is going public with its Blue Oval certification program for dealerships – a controversial project that some dealers criticize.

Actress Jamie Lee Curtis is the spokeswoman for the Blue Oval print advertisements. TV ads are documentary-like, urging viewers to visit certified dealerships to see how they have improved the dealership experience.

The ads also include interviews with dealership employees talking about “relationships with fellow employees, testimonials on satisfying customers and pride they’ve experienced by embracing Blue Oval Certified,” says Diane Craig, a Ford manager in charge of the certification program.

Part of the marketing effort will include public service announcements in which Ms. Curtis urges parents to take their children to participating Blue Oval dealerships to receive free child safety I.D. kits. That starts May 25.

But Ford and some of its dealers have locked horns over the Blue Oval program. It requires dealers to meet a stringent set of customer satisfaction criteria including a Voice of the Customer (VOC) index as well as other sales, service, concern resolution and technology requirements.

The main point of contention is that Ford gives Blue Oval dealers a 1.25% invoice discount per vehicle ordered from the manufacturer. It works out to about $200-$250 a vehicle.

Dealer critics contend it’s a two-tier pricing system that violates many states’ dealership franchise laws and creates an unfair competitive disadvantage for good dealers who, for whatever reason, might not be able to get certified.

“We can’t believe this is legal or ethical,” says Norwood Bryan, who heads the North Carolina Automobile Dealers Association.

Some dealers and dealer groups have sued Ford over Blue Oval. The plaintiffs say they are not against certifying dealers, but rather oppose the multiple pricing system.

Ironically, one plaintiff, Robert Creedon of Senator Ford in Sacramento CA, is a Blue Oval dealer. He says his legal action is a matter of principle and that he’s convinced of the suit’s merits.

But top Ford executives say they are convinced of Blue Oval’s merits – and they’re not backing down, despite some dealers’ objections and apprehensions.

“Blue Oval got off to a rocky start, but it is back on track,” Ford CEO Jacques Nasser tells Ward’s Dealer Business. “The great dealers love it. The idea is that if you do the right thing with customers, you get more business and profits.”

Several reminders of the Blue Oval program push are at Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn, MI. Huge Blue Oval logo decals were put on the front entrance walkway this month. Tented Blue Oval placards perched on every tabletop of the main dining room. Complimentary issues of USA Today newspapers -- in Blue Oval wrappers -- were offered in the lobby.

Meanwhile, controversy aside, many dealers are becoming Blue Oval certified – and quickly. In late 2000, about 1,300 of them were certified or in the process. That’s since increased to 3,000. It accounts for more than 80% of Ford’s dealer ranks.

“We feel very strongly about it,” says Mr. Nasser.

But so do the critics.