Laurie Toby Edison

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Toyota: Real People Stalked by Avatars

Laurie and Debbie say:

We knew we wanted to write about Toyota’s “Your Other You” campaign the minute we heard about it, but it took us a long conversation to tease out exactly what we wanted to say.

The campaign is now past tense, for reasons we’ll get to in a minute. Basically, the premise was that you could enter a friend’s name and contact details and Toyota would arrange for a “virtual lunatic” to play an “extravagant prank” on that friend.

First, one of five virtual lunatics will contact your friend. 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 campaign integrated phone calls, texts, emails, and videos. The “virtual lunatics” have MySpace pages and blogs. They each drove a Toyota Matrix. You, lucky you, got to follow what’s happening to your friend (and presumably other people’s friends) online in real time.

Who were these virtual lunatics? Well, one was a guy who dresses up as a raccoon mascot. One was a babbling African-American man with an odd device, who’s searching for energetic forces out in a field somewhere. One was lead singer for a heavy metal band that had gone off the rails and was worshipping strange deities. And a fugitive (strangely no longer available on the website) was “coming to stay with” Amber Duick. Somehow, she didn’t think it was funny:

Amber Duick claims she had difficulty eating, sleeping and going to work during March and April of last year after she received e-mails for five days from a fictitious man called Sebastian Bowler, from England, who said he was on the run from the law, knew her and where she lived, and was coming to her home to hide from the police.

When you signed up a friend on the YourOtherYou site, you emailed them a “personality test,” and they had to click through a terms and conditions agreement. Toyota is now claiming that Duick agreed to be the victim in a stalker relationship, but her attorneys claim (and we believe) that the agreement was *ahem* somewhat less than clear about the details. Besides, they have us all trained not to read those agreements in super-legalese anyway.

We hope Duick wins, and she probably will. But the underlying point is more interesting.

We live in an age of fictional web personas, avatars, characters we run, etc., etc. Up until now, these various fictionalizations have interacted with each other. If my avatar hits your avatar, you might be angry at me, but your own physical nose will not be broken. If your avatar steals from my avatar, I might stop dealing with you on line, but my physical wallet (and bank account) will almost certainly still be as full as it was before the theft.

What seems to have happened here is that fictional characters were designed to interact with real people (and the fact that they were fictional was, Toyota brags, “as Google-proof as possible”). We wouldn’t be surprised at this story if it was about a handful of teenagers with a lot of bandwidth, a lot of imagination, and a lot of frustration: that’s the 21st-century version of the kind of telephone pranks we both remember playing.

More 21st century differences? The pranks are originated by an ad agency, not the people who give in the names. And the experience of seeing the person being pranked is virtual, not real. It’s not lleaving a bucket of water over a door and watching your parents get wet; it’s telling somebody else you’d like to see your parents get pranked, having them make up the prank, and then reading the emails and watching the YouTube videos of how it came out.

What’s fascinating is that the pranksters here are corporados. Saatchi and Saatchi is a prominent advertising agency. They “developed the campaign to target men under 35 who hate advertising.” They had to convince five or six layers of management, and the legal department, that this was a) fun, b) funny, and c) worth it to sell cars. They created hundreds of internal memos and emails, dozens of storyboards and presentations, and spent (probably) in the high tens of thousands of dollars.

We’re not quite sure who they wanted to sell cars to. The people who gave them names? The people who watched the “on line in real time” adventures of avatar stalkers and real victims? And perhaps also the victims themselves, who could probably be counted on to be “good sports”? (“Aw, come on. Nothing bad happened.”)

When did advertising agencies and corporate management lose the ability to tell the difference between avatars and real people? That’s scarier than “virtual lunatics.”

4 Responses to “Toyota: Real People Stalked by Avatars”

  1. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    Interesting analysis. I disagree with “What’s fascinating is that the pranksters here are corporados.” The intended prankster is the person who signs up a friend.The avatars are the agents of the pranksters, committing the actual “pranks.” The corporados are the puppet masters, having created the “game” and the avatars.

  2. Debbie Says:

    Lisa: Well, yes and no. The person who signs up a friend is initiating the prank, but s/he isn’t doing anything. All planning, effort, ingenuity,etc. resides with the corporados. So there’s some kind of joint role of “prankster,” but I personally would call the person who signs up a friend the initiator. They probably don’t even know in any detail what they’re signing their “friend” up to experience.

  3. Lynne Murray Says:

    Wow, I agree with you, Lisa, about the “friend” being no friend, and I also agree with Debbie about the ultimate responsibility being with the corporation. Where were Toyota’s lawyers while all this was happening?

    This is like Candid Camera on some kind of horrible designer drug trip. I remember speaking to the relative of a schizophrenic who was terrified by the old, relatively mild, Candid Camera because inanimate objects really did speak to her, and seeing them on television put her over the edge

    Reality can be a slippery concept, and older corporate executives must surely want to use the right “bleeding edge” media tools to reach a young male audience that lives in a different media universe. So I can envision them saying yes to this approach when persuaded that this is the language those guys speak.

    It does seem like a variation on the Punked phenomenon http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punk%27d

    Or its slicker professional incarnation the Borat fake interview phenomenon, where the victim does not know it’s not a real interview.

    Here professional media people were given a license to use their high-level creativity to turn harassment of unknowning victims who did not sign up themselves for the exercise.

    It’s like stalking as an art form. The fact that a so-called “friend” signed them up is dubious. With friends like that enemies are unnecessary. The victims are not professional entertainers, politicians or people who volunteered to be humiliated.

    I’m glad the campaign was shut down before more damage was done. The power imbalance between tormenter and victim reminds me of that unfortunate 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after being insulted on My Space by the mother of a neighbor pretending to be a cute teenage boy on My Space.

    http://www.romow.com/culture-blog/murder-on-myspace-hoax-leads-to-suicide/

  4. D. Says:

    Speaking of third-party pranks, am I the only one who flashed on Stephen King’s Needful Things?

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