Sticking with the theme of automotive brands and engagement, you've no doubt seen that Toyota’s 2008 guerrilla marketing campaign, promoting its 2009 Matrix, is once again making headlines, and it aint’ pretty. As a refresher, in 2008, Amber Duick began receiving a series of emails from one by the name of ‘Sebastian Bowler’, a fictitious English soccer hooligan with a fondness for excessive drinking, destruction of private property and general rowdiness (because these are all traits that every English soccer fan exhibits, of course). The first email Duick received from Bowler was to let her know he was on his way to her apartment – even so much as citing her address – to crash for a while. Additional emails chronicled his trip to her abode, often mentioning his frequent run-ins with the local law enforcement, while another email, this time from a hotel manager, demanded Duick pay for damages associated with a television, supposedly broken by Bowler, accompanied by an authentic-looking e-bill. Not surprisingly, Duick was a tad upset, or in her own words ‘terrified.’
Only after receiving a final email containing a link to a video did Duick realize what was actually happening: she was the target of a virtual prank designed to raise awareness of the new 2009 Toyota Matrix. What a rugged English soccer fan with a penchant for inebriation has to do with the Matrix is beyond me, and quite obviously, beyond Duick as well - a woman who was chosen because she represented Toyota’s target market. The campaign certainly had a hint major dose of realism to it, something Alex Flint, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi – the L.A.-based agency responsible for the campaign – boasted about. Now, three years later, news broke that a California court has agreed that Duick can move forward with a $10 million lawsuit against both Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi. Ouch.
I don’t think anyone can argue that this was a poorly executed idea, one that clearly – at least to everyone outside of Saatchi & Saatchi – wasn’t given nearly enough thought. But as someone who works in the PR industry, this whole campaign fascinates me for a different reason, outside of its headline-grabbing concept.
Here Toyota was, in 2008, when Twitter only had 500,000 monthly visitors, when Facebook broke its first user milestone of catching up to MySpace, and when the concept of social media, and storytelling marketing was still in its infancy. Despite this, Toyota took a chance on a program, albeit one disconnected from its audience, and ran with a concept that was, to an extent, ahead of its time.
Today, one of the most difficult challenges PR, marketing and advertising professionals face isn’t always coming up with fresh ideas; it’s selling them to clients. Businesses have a comfort zone and it’s when they step out of it that great, award-winning campaigns are born. To that extent, I applaud Toyota, which for the record, is still with Saatchi, for at least trying something new and taking a head-first dive into the unknown.
As for Flint, he told marketing magazine OMMA (Online, Media, Marketing & Advertising) that the prank campaign should gain the appreciation from ‘even the most cynical, anti-advertising guy.’ Three years, a flurry of negative articles, public backlash, and possibly $10 million later, I wonder if he still feels the same way.
What are your thoughts on the matter?