Viral marketing: a cautionary tale from Toyota

Toyota recently put together a promotional campaign allowing users to frighten their friends by convincing them they were being stalked. The viral had aboslutely nothing to do with cars, nor was it targeted at the firm’s key demographic. It was simply an attempt to tap into the power of viral and drive traffic to the Toyota website, regardless of the consequences.

YourOtherYou was a programme that allowed users to input info about a friend, their phone number, address etc, which Toyota would then use "without their knowledge, to freak them out through a series of dynamically personalized phone calls, texts, emails and videos."

Sounds like a bad idea already? It gets worse. Here’s what will happen to your "friend" once you sign them up to YourOtherYou.

"First, one of five virtual lunatics will contact your friend," explains Toyota. "They will seem to know them intimately, and tell them that they are driving cross-country to visit. It all goes downhill from there. The Matrix integrates seamlessly into the experience and you can follow the progress of your prank in real-time online. Each piece of the campaign assures that the experience is as Google-proof as possible."

One recipient of this prank was Amber Duick. She received a host of phone calls from one of these "lunatics", who told her that he was comng from England to see her. At one point, she was even sent a bill from a hotel that this stalker destroyed. As a result of the YourOtherYou viral, Duick "had difficulty eating, sleeping and going to work".

Guy Levine, founder of Web Marketing Advisor, lambasts Toyota’s thoughtless use of viral marketing. "This is another example of big business going to ‘cool’ design agencies to create an award-winning piece of junk. You can just imagine the creative meeting: "Lets do Cloverfield meets Toyota! Then let’s follow it up with an iPhone App." Yawn.

"Toyota, get real," continues Levine. "Instead of getting down with the kids, you have just managed to scare a woman half to death and created a law suit. This just shows how hard it is to create good viral content. Something which spreads like wildfire, doesn’t offend too much, is funny and somehow helps to generate more sales or brand awareness. We are now in the attention age. Advertisers are doing everything they know to steal a few seconds of our attention. But in the business world, viral has to generate buzz and opportunities, not just buzz, otherwise it is a waste of time."

And how does Toyota defend the YourOtherYou campaign? Toyota embedded a "permission" box into the personality test it sends the victim of the prank. The firm believes this implicit consent is enough keep them clean of any charges.

Don’t make the same mistake as Toyota. Target your virals carefully and make sure that they do not damage your brand in the search for eyeballs. As Levine says: "The best way small business can make viral work is by creating helpful things. Create a calculator that will be indispensible for your target market or offer a generous voucher code. Not only will people forward this to other people in your target market, there is a link between what you offer and your business."

What to you think of Toyota’s YourOtherYou campaign? Is all fair in viral warfare? Have your say below.

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