DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- Toyota Motor Sales USA and its ad agency of record, Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, engaged in a bizarre, online "terror marketing campaign" that frightened and harassed thousands of consumers via e-mails, according to a lawsuit filed Sept. 28 in Los Angeles.
The suit claims the online effort, dreamed up by Saatchi to create buzz for the youth-targeted Toyota Matrix, involved a series of e-mails last year to plaintiff Amber Duick from the fictitious Brit Sebastian Bowler, who had moved to the U.S.
|The ad that triggered the blitz.|
Mr. Bowler's digital missives to Ms. Duick indicated he knew her, knew her address and was coming with his pit bull, Trigger, to stay with her to avoid the cops. In his second e-mail to her, Mr. Bowler listed his MySpace page, which is still up (although it says he last logged in June 2008). His video and pictures on MySpace "depict Mr. Bowler as a fanatical English soccer fan who enjoyed drinking alcohol to excess," the suit says. His MySpace page also shows a photo with an arrow pointing to "me" and the caption "my mate took this photo which shows me right before the riot."
One of the nine e-mails to Ms. Duick, the suit alleges, was a bill for $78.92 from a motel for Mr. Bowler's one-night stay there, plus damage to a TV set and picture frame. He had listed her as a reference and told the motel to send her the bill, the complaint says.
"My client was terrified," said her Los Angeles attorney Nicholas Tepper. "She slept with a machete next to her bed and she slept with mace. She could barely sleep or eat normally."
The suit says "she became physically ill" because she was convinced "a disturbed and aggressive" stranger was en route to her house.
Mr. Tepper said laws lag technology. "The technology comes first and morality and guidelines seem to follow." Mr. Tepper said a friend of Ms. Duick's sent her an e-mail for a personality test called "The Other You" that triggered the blitz.
The final e-mail had a link to a video that showed Mr. Bowler driving into a drive-in movie where the film "Imbecile" was playing. The out-of-focus film shows an old man laughing continuously, revealing to Ms. Duick that "she had been punked" and all the e-mails were part of an ad campaign for the Matrix, the suit claims.
A Toyota spokesman said the automaker doesn't comment on pending litigation. Kurt Ritter, chairman of Saatchi's west coast operations, did not return an e-mail or phone call for comment.
The Toyota brand was the sixth largest advertiser in the U.S. last year, based on its measured media spending of $824 million, says TNS Media Intelligence. The automaker said last month it will spend $1 billion on advertising and incentives in the fourth quarter across its Toyota, Scion and Lexus brands.
The suit comes after Toyota Motor announced Sept. 28 it is working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSA on a plan for a recall of 3.8 million vehicles -- which will be its biggest ever in the U.S. -- due to an issue with floor mats. Toyota issued a safety advisory Wednesday urging owners of five Toyota models and two Lexus models to remove driver-side floor mats which, if not secured properly or if additional non-factory mats are used, can cause uncontrollable acceleration. The carmaker is asking owners not to replace the mat with any other.
A California state trooper and three members of his family died on a highway near San Diego Aug. 28 while driving a 2009 Lexus ES350 on loan from a local Lexus dealer. Preliminary reports from law enforcement officers indicate the cause may have been an all-weather floor mat from a different Lexus model that interfered with the accelerator.
Toyota will notify all impacted owners directly not via any sort of safety ad campaign, a spokesman said. Owners with questions can visit their dealers or call the Toyota brand customer line of 800 331-4331 or for Lexus 800 255-3987.