A Los Angeles woman has filed a $10 million lawsuit against Toyota and its ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, L.A., over their 2008 viral Web campaign to promote the Matrix crossover.
The email campaign centered on a series of wacky (or threatening) "maniacs" who contacted targeted people incessantly for five days via email, text messages and phone calls, saying -- in the case of the plaintiff -- that he was on his way to visit, or move in, and was driving a Matrix.
The viral effort actually targeted people who wanted to "prank a friend." "Tell us a little about them," the campaign's Web video said. "Then pick one of the maniacs to mess with their heads."
In her suit, Amber Duick, whose head allegedly was messed with, said she was terrorized by the campaign, and couldn't sleep, eat or go to work after five days of emails. In her case, the character was one Sebastian Bowler, a mad Brit with a pit bull, running from the police.
Nicholas Tepper, lawyer for the plaintiff, tells Marketing Daily that they will argue that details of the campaign were nowhere in the fine print, as the opt-in or consent language was contained in a phony personality test.
"The fine print was illegible," he says, because the way the text scrolled made it impossible to read the disclosure statement."
"It didn't say that you agree to have a menacing character -- who's Google-proof and on the run from police in both England and California -- pretend to be coming to your house," he says. "It is a hegemonic, sexist campaign. These maniacs are young, menacing males, targeted to men, under the age of 30, who hate advertising -- and parenthetically hate women."
Tepper further says the initial email appeared to come from a friend of his client, adding: "We believe it was actually the first email of this prank."
The automaker and agency issued a joint statement saying: "Toyota and its advertising agency ... are aware that there have been accusations made by an individual regarding an interactive experience offered to participants last year as part of a Toyota Matrix campaign."
The companies go on to say that the accusations are without merit because Duick opted-in, "granting her permission to receive campaign emails and other communications from Toyota. The statement goes on to say that Toyota and Saatchi plan to fight the suit.
"The reality is, this type of campaign is pretty damned aggressive, and you'd have to say it exceeds what people would expect to receive if they opted in to something," says Wes Brown, auto market consultant with Iceology, Los Angeles. "In all honestly, if you felt this 'punk'd' approach is where you wanted to go, and with the Web rife with identity theft, spam, viruses, and stalkers, would it not have been smarter to have done something on the street, and then create viral videos? With everything that goes on online, it just strikes me as a horribly risky approach that was really unnecessary."
Toyota is facing publicity over lawsuits and recalls this year, including one by a former in-house lawyer alleging that the automaker covered up data on SUV rollovers.
"With everything else Toyota has been hammered with lately, this is another thing to put out there and add to the list," says Brown. "The reality is, all automakers deal with lawsuits every year -- every company does -- the difference is [publicity] used to be focused on the Big Three. Now everyone's gunning for Toyota."