Marketing: Toyota's terror-able ad campaign

Toyota may have Punk'd itself with its creepy 2008 Matrix campaign.

“Your Other You” was a 2008 U.S. marketing campaign meant to create word-of-mouth advertising for the Toyota Matrix. But now, more than a year after it ended, the promotion — a scheme that let people play an elaborate “stalking” prank on someone else — is garnering attention of a different kind. A woman in Los Angeles has filed a US$10-million lawsuit over the campaign, claiming she was so frightened by the prank she cried constantly, couldn’t sleep and carried weapons in her vehicle.

Created by Saatchi & Saatchi LA, and inspired by MTV’s show Punk’d, “Your Other You” was run through a Toyota-branded website. Once a person was targeted for the prank, they would receive e-mails, text messages and phone calls from a fictitious lunatic — who had the victim’s home address and other personal information — over five straight days until the hoax was revealed. The hope was the victim would then become the prankster and the gimmick would spread.

Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi LA plan to fight the lawsuit, claiming the woman, Amber Duick, agreed to participate. But win or lose, it’s hard to see how this could have been an effective campaign. “This sounds like one of those ideas that was great in the boardroom and then on execution was a really bad idea,” says Jeff Roach, president and creative director of Glitteration, a marketing agency based in Oakville, Ont. His biggest criticism: there’s no connection between the Toyota brand and pranks. Campaigns that seem out of character for companies, Roach says, typically perform poorly among young adults. In the Matrix’s case, the target consumer falls within the Gen Y demographic, for whom durability, quality and reliability are the most important factors when buying a car. Tie-ins between thecampaign and those qualities are hard to conjure.

If anything, the promotion seems to have spoken to a different audience. Potential pranksters were driven to the campaign site by online banner ads and outdoor posters, many of which were for the products and services of the fake characters in the promotion. For example, one was for animal lingerie and another for “Sebastian’s Academy of Pub Fighting.” So it’s doubtful many of the same people who responded to these ads were also in the market for a compact vehicle.

Finally, orchestrating a hoax that can fool Internet-savvy young adults isn’t cheap. To ensure their campaign was “Google-proof,” Saatchi & Saatchi LA had to create such things as websites for the fictional companies, an automated phone service for a hotel and an album for a heavy metal character.

The agency insists the fallout has had no impact on its relationship with Toyota, a key client for decades. It can also point to positive recognition for the program in its industry, including being shortlisted in the integrated campaign category at the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival. Yet those distinctions likely mean little to Toyota when it’s trying to rebound from a US$5-billion annual loss.