A taxi workout video is a surprise hit for a Shanghai media company this summer, setting the Chinese internet buzzing as its outrageous star jolts weary commuters to attention.
The wild success of the "Mr. and Miss WOW" campaign has been a boon for Touchmedia, an 8-year-old company that puts interactive ads on seatback screens in the taxis of major Chinese cities. Its ability to target taxi passengers -- by and large white-collar professionals with discretionary purchasing power -- has made it highly attractive to marketers seeking a nontraditional medium.
"You have nothing to do for 15, 20, 30 minutes and you have interactivity. It helps you develop a dialogue. That's why it's so effective," CEO Micky Fung said. "What better way to know about the actual advertisement than if you're actually playing a game on it or answering a question."
Or in the case of the WOW campaign, working out along with it, unless passengers are too busy gaping at the fitness instructor on the screen.
Miss WOW looks like a graduate of the Tammy Faye Messner school of cosmetology: magenta lipstick and matching hairband, comically arched eyebrows and high pigtails, which stand in contrast to her buff physique. In the first installment of the campaign, she leads passengers through a series of exercises designed to relax neck muscles cramped from sitting in front of a computer.
"Now, I'll teach everybody some exercises," she chirps. "You can do them in the taxi too!"
The over-the-top persona has seemed to break through the static, with many Chinese taking photos of the instructor on the screen and posting them to their accounts on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter with more than 140 million users. "Shocking" was a commonly used description.
"I'm just thinking one thing, what if the cab driver suddenly saw this video while driving, would there be an accident?!" one user wrote on video-sharing site Tudou.com.
Whether loved or hated, the video was viewed more than 1 million times online, according to Touchmedia statistics. After five weeks, passengers completed an in-taxi health survey nearly 420,000 times, and more than 21,000 passengers signed up for a 45-day health challenge.
There's been so much online hype that mainstream media started writing about the campaign, even the state-run China Daily newspaper, which was among several publications that revealed the shocking "WOW gal" was none other than Touchmedia's VP-communication, Nancy Pon.
The low-key Chinese-Canadian said she was reluctant to get involved in the on-screen side of the campaign but eventually relented after repeated requests from colleagues. Ms. Pon's only demand: that the fitness instructor look totally different from the real her. The creative team happily obliged.
"I haven't told my parents and I don't plan to," she said, laughing. "I just met up with someone who I've done events with for years and years and she said, 'I saw someone in the taxi who looked like you, but I was pretty sure you wouldn't do something like that .'"
The concept behind the video was a 1980's-style "passion for fitness," a la Richard Simmons. Though that decade in the West is remembered for big hair, neon colors and flamboyance, life in China at that time was drab, as the country took its first small steps in opening up to the rest of the world.
"Obviously to this market it was completely new, completely unexpected especially in the in-taxi environment. I don't think anyone has been taught a workout inside a taxi, much less with this eye-catching coach," Ms. Pon said.
The workout video is part of a Touchmedia public-service campaign to promote exercise, in association with China's General Administration of Sport. Commercial partners include fitness-equipment makers Life Fitness and Power Plate as well as vitamin company Centrum, which now wants to run a TV ad featuring Pon's "WOW gal" instructor.
The success of the WOW campaign and other taxi advertising underscores a key difference between Chinese consumers and those in the West, Mr. Fung said. He originally started his company in New York but during testing, many passengers said, "Turn that crap off, it's an invasion of my privacy."
"Over here, when something is new they embrace it," Mr. Fung said, describing consumers who are inquisitive and interested in uncovering the benefits of new products or technology. "China is up and coming so the whole mindset is very, very different."
Touchmedia has 30,000 screens in four Chinese cities so far -- Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen -- and ambitious plans to expand to more cities in the coming months. Audits show that only 1.7% of passengers turn the screen off and keep it off. Passengers generally play with any one of the 11 icons on the screen for an average of 40 to 110 seconds.
The WOW campaign has spurred interest in Touchmedia, with interest from potential advertisers tripling since it kicked off, said Managing Director Neil Ducray. Previous clients have included Blackberry, HSBC, Visa, Gillette and Estee Lauder.
Up next: The exercise video in the second phase of the campaign features a fit guy with an effeminate voice teaching shoulder routines; and a third video, featuring wrist exercises, debuts in August.