Prank Marketing and the Toyota Matrix: How Far Is Too Far?
In 2008, Toyota Motors paired up with Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles to release Your Other You, an advertising campaign promoting the Toyota Matrix. Targeting male twentysomethings, the campaign crafted an elaborate transmedia prank experience to overcome the demographic’s strong aversion to advertising and corporations. Saatchi’s creative director told OMMA Magazine that the campaign was all about “empowering the customer…we wanted them to be involved and to feel like they were part of the process.”
According to a complaint filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court on September 28 of this year, Amber Duick did not feel empowered after experiencing the campaign firsthand. The complaint accuses Toyota, Saatchi & Saatchi, and fifty individuals associated with the campaign of: (1) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (2) negligent infliction of emotional distress; (3) negligence; (4) unfair, unlawful, and deceptive trade practices, (5) false, deceptive, and/or misleading advertising; (6) violation of the Consumer Legal Remedies Act; (7) fraud; and (8) negligent misrepresentation. Duick is seeking $10 million in compensatory damages.
Starting in February 2008, print, outdoor and banner ads drove traffic to yourotheryou.com. There, users were encouraged to prank a friend by providing personal information about them including their address, phone number, and alma mater. According to Nicholas Tepper, Ms. Duick’s attorney, the prank’s target would receive an email with a “personality test” containing a link to an “indecipherable” consent form. For the next five days, one of five maniacs would contact the target with personalized texts, emails, phone calls, and videos. The user could track the prank’s evolution through a dashboard indicating which messages their target received over the course of the campaign.
According to the complaint, Duick was contacted on March 29 by an individual claiming to be Sebastian Bowler, a soccer hooligan on the run from the police with his pitbull, Trigger. Bowler informed Duick that he was planning on staying at her house for a few days, providing Duick’s prior address. Between March 29 and April 2, Duick was contacted on numerous occassions with regards to Bowler’s exploits, and received an email from the Coronett Motel claiming she was responsible for a television Bowler smashed. On April 2, Bowler provided Duick with a link to a video of an old man who explained that the entire experience was a prank, while laughing continuously. A picture of one of Amber’s friends was on the desk. Tepper contends that this “Terror Marketing Campaign” was not intended to encourage the targets of the prank to purchase cars: rather, “it was designed to create publicity and ‘buzz’ at the expense of those subject to it.”
This isn’t the first marketing campaign to come under fire for blurring the lines between fiction and reality. In 2007, the digital advertising agency Ralph launched The Dexter Treatment to promote Showtime’s television series Dexter. Visitors to sliceoflifetv.com could provide the name, gender, age and occupation of a target, along with a personal message. The target would then receive a link to a customized news report. Also in 2007, some people exposed to CourtTV’s Save My Husband campaign complained that the campaign’s fictionality wasn’t labeled clearly enough. Most recently, Nestle Butterfinger launched its Dude Where’s My Bar campaign by posting footage of Seth Green freaking out over getting mugged, followed by security camera footage of the incident. Although the campaign’s main page clearly states its fictionality, the initial videos made Gawker and The Examiner question whether the initial mugging videos were real or a hoax.
Christy Dena authored a short article explaining why ARGs aren’t hoaxes. In the article, she makes a distinction between experiences that intend to deceive its viewers and those that strive to trick people. With Your Other You, there appears to be a difference of opinion on whether Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi did enough to indicate the campaign’s fictionality. While Conor Brady of Organic thought the fictionality was obvious enough that he wouldn’t be fooled, Christine Champagne noted that “Saatchi went to great lengths to make the prank Google-proof by providing fully realized lives for these characters online.” Moreover, while the campaign was targeting a traditionally media-literate demographic, some people are less likely to pick up on cues of fictionality than others.
Whatever the eventual disposition of Duick v. Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc. may be, Toyota’s Your Other You campaign raises a number of design concerns for developers working in the alternate reality gaming space. When you employ a viral mechanism to promote the game, how overtly should it indicate the game’s fictionality? How much information do you disclose about the nature of the campaign? Finally, how do you allow for players to opt-out if they no longer wish to continue the experience?
Click Here to download Tepper Law Firm’s press release on the case, including the original complaint filed September 28.
Click Here to read the experiences of another individual subjected to Sebastian Bowler’s antics.