Prank Marketing and the Toyota Matrix: How Far Is Too Far?

yourotheryouIn 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 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 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.


  1. This isn’t a new dilemma. Some eighty years ago, Orson Wells and the Mercury Theatre pulled a not dissimilar prank but they did it to a much wider audience: the War of the Worlds.

  2. Yeah, except it wasn’t a prank. They said at the beginning it was just a story.

  3. I’m always reminded of what Sean Stewart said back in the A.I./Cloudmaker days about all of the hype that ARGs were blurring the line between reality and fiction in a way that might unwittingly deceive or fool people. I believe he said (as direct quote-y as I can recall): “Dude, we’re talking about sex robots from the future. If you think it’s real, that’s not our problem.” I always thought that having an ARG be not even remotely plausible was part of the ethos of making them. You don’t want to fool anyone, you want to make it easy for people to pretend they’re fooled.
    Hoax marketing sucks. And that Toyota prank campaign strikes me as awfully mean-spirited.

  4. In regards to the Orson Welles broadcast: True, it was announced at the beginning of the broadcast that indeed it was a reenactment of the HG Wells book. Naturally, if the fictional context of the reading was announced publicly, it would not be considered a hoax or prank, by definition, and that certainly wasn’t the intention of that station. However, the station began receiving numerous phone calls from worried listeners who had not tuned in to hear the announcement, thinking that the broadcast was in fact a legitimate news story, as did many americans. Still, not a hoax. Things did shift, however, when the producer began signaling to Welles from the sound booth, “Stop the broadcast! People are in hysterics.” Welles response, in so many words, “Let them be afraid!” and he continued. The intention to deceive, therein lies the hoax. The key distinguishing factor between the false, the prank, and an entertaining fiction, is of course, the voluntary suspension of disbelief of the participant/audience.

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