Who says ads for hybrid cars have to be cute and cuddly? Not Lexus.
Carmakers marketing hybrid vehicles tend to craft cheerful, earnest and inspiring messages about how good the cars are for the environment. But Lexus opted to go dark - and sexy even - in allowing Skinny to create Lexus Dark Ride, an interactive film that takes participants on a thrill ride in the Lexus CT200h, a sporty hybrid hatchback that will go on sale in the United States in early 2011.
Why not go the warm, fuzzy, "Yay, you're saving the planet!" route? "Lexus has always been more associated with the baby boomer segment, and this is a car that's for a new, younger audience," explains Liron Reznik, who shares the title of Skinny cofounder and co-chief creative officer with Jonas Hallberg. "So we felt like this was a great way to get to that younger, digitally savvy audience and to get them to look at Lexus in a new way.
"We also wanted to get as close as we could to allowing them to feel how fun it is to drive the car," adds Hallberg.
With that in mind, Skinny worked with Stink Digital director James Brown and Skunk Los Angeles, as well as Speedscape - the visual-effects shop created a digital version of the CT200h, which didn't actually exist at the time Lexus Dark Ride was made - to produce the Lexus Dark Ride interactive film, which can be accessed via lexusdarkride.com and personalized with a webcam photo and recorded dialogue, and shared via Facebook Connect.
Participants embark on a virtual test drive, riding shotgun and serving as navigator in the service of a tough guy named Tony, who has been hired to drive a CT200h from the Nevada desert to a safe house in Los Angeles, while eluding baddies who want to get their hands on the prototype.
It truly takes a brave soul to get into a car with daredevil Tony, who isn't exactly the friendly type. But three daring digital creatives - Firstborn's JoonYong Park, Digital Kitchen's Erik Reponen and Andrew Christou of Publicis Seattle - buckled up and took a spin through Lexus Dark Ride for OMMA.
First of all, what do you think of Lexus commissioning this interactive film positioning the CT200h as a cool sports car as opposed to hyping its hybrid status?
Christou: Any time you try to break from the category, it is a good thing because that's the stuff that gets noticed, and this experiential approach is something that we should celebrate.
Park: It's not about the features when people are buying a car. It's about the brand, and Lexus was definitely skewed toward an older crowd. If they want to target a younger crowd, this is a smart move.
Reponen: There is pretty strong debate about the efficiency of hybrids, especially performance hybrids, in terms of the carbon footprint that is really there. So if you try to oversell the green promise and can't back it up, you're probably better off avoiding it. Plus, the car has that sporty hatchback vibe, so it makes sense from a performance standpoint to position it this way.
What did you make of the initial setup for Lexus Dark Ride, through which you are prepped for the ride and offered the chance to personalize the experience?
Christou: The opening setup turned me off for privacy reasons. The only reason I accepted the Facebook Connect request was because I was talking to you.
Reponen: As a story, it wasn't clear to me. Who was this woman wearing this futuristic outfit projected like a hologram in an empty warehouse in the very beginning? There wasn't enough context.
Park: There were a lot of steps you had to go through - the webcam, the microphone, and all that stuff. I'm very curious about the bounce rate - the whole webcam and microphone setup and the questions just took me forever to get through.
Putting aside your qualms with the intro, did you enjoy the actual ride?
Christou: I enjoyed the experience, but they could have done more. It was a little bit of a long walk for a short drink of water. I liked the storyline. I just think they needed to tighten up the arc and increase the level of interactivity to keep me engaged. I prefer something less slick and more interactive for what that idea wanted to be.
Reponen: Yeah, I found aspects of it enjoyable. The production value for the video experience was really amazing. I was impressed with the video. It's just that it seemed like a lot of the energy was focused on this film, and then they threw in the interactive parts here and there just to say they could make it interactive.
Park: I agree. The video quality and production were high end, but the interaction wasn't much. You were picking "a" or "b." It's not like you were really controlling the situation. It just felt like there was this path, and you were just going through it, and it wasn't really interactive. It felt like a linear experience. Honestly, I think the driver had too much of a role in the story, and I wish I had a little more control. I almost would rather see a 12-minute short film with no interaction.
Christou: Then you're just doing BMW Films [a short-film showcase sponsored by that manufacturer], and the point of this was not to be a successful film as much as it was supposed to be a successful experiential idea.
How did the experience feel in terms of length? The ride itself was 12 minutes.
Reponen: I wonder if they could have done something that was an overall shorter experience but had more twists and turns.
Park: It just felt like a little too much for me. The experience was a little too long.
Christou: Anywhere between four and six minutes would have worked. How long is the most-watched YouTube video? It's going to be between 40 seconds and two minutes - anything longer than two minutes, it's gotta be pretty darn special.
Does Lexus Dark Ride ultimately sell you on the car?
Reponen: It has me interested. It's definitely got me on the right end of the purchase funnel. I'd be curious to learn more about the vehicle. It did work on that level.
Christou: It totally makes the car sexy, and they are spot on with the experiential concept. I think a few minor executional tweaks that could still be made and reintegrated can solve the problems that I have with it.
How would you rate Lexus Dark Ride? Is it a success, a disaster or somewhere in between?
Park: It's somewhere in between, but definitely a good try. The approach was right, and one thing I really liked about the interactive film is it wasn't all about the car's features. It was more about the story, and you being a part of it. It's good the client approved that.
Reponen: It's a mixed bag for me. I have to applaud the effort and the resources that went into this project. It's an ambitious undertaking. Where it just fell short is that it really felt as if you had people with more of a broadcast mindset approaching an interactive experience vs. really looking deeper into what interactivity, especially in a Flash experience, can allow you to do.
Christou: It's a better idea than it is an execution. I know what they wanted: The creatives were interested in and eager to give you a rich experience, and I love them for that.