The Olympics

Toyota's Olympics Campaign Evokes 'Hands Across America'

Automaker Says It Is Not Intentionally Alluding to 1986 Pop Culture Moment

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Toyota does not take over as a global Olympics sponsor until next year. So for the Rio games, the automaker must still comply with strict trademark restrictions on Olympic phrases and imagery.

But in a new ad debuting during NBC's coverage of Friday night's opening ceremony, the automaker comes about as close as it can to portraying what looks like an Olympic ceremony without breaking the rules. The spot by Saatchi and Saatchi, L.A., opens with a medal ceremony, including three athletes on a podium. But keen observers will notice that the scene, which was shot in Morocco, depicts not the Olympics but a fictional event called the "friendship tournament," according to signs in the stadium.

The ad is another example of how non-sponsors are getting creative as they seek to tap into the Olympic spirit in ads without breaking the United States Olympic Committee's trademark rules. The regulations forbid the use of phrases including "Olympic," "Go for the gold," "Let the games begin," "Team USA" and "Road to Rio."

"The USOC approved the campaign, and we shared the creative with them every step of the way," a Toyota spokesman said.

The medal scene is only a small part of the TV commercial, which is part of a larger campaign themed "Stand Together." The spot goes on to show people holding hands in cities, neighborhoods, at a church, at a beach, in the desert and at a Toyota plant, accompanied by The Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin'" as a soundtrack. One scene shows plummeting skydivers holding hands.

The ad is evocative of the "Hands Across America" charitable event in 1986 that sought to create a human chain from New York to Southern California.

A Toyota spokesman said the marketer is not purposely recalling the 1986 event. But Toyota does have its own charitable component. The campaign will encourage people to create their own videos of people holding hands and share it on social media using "#LetsJoinHands." For each video, Toyota will donate $20 to United Way, up to $250,000. The marketer will also mix the user-generated content into pre-roll and social videos.

"Teamwork is ingrained in Toyota's DNA -- it's a founding principle," Jack Hollis, group VP-marketing for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., said in a statement. "We believe, as our founder did, in the 'power of togetherness' and athletics is an amazing example of the power of teamwork. While we do not compete at the highest levels of sport on the playing field, we celebrate the spirit of collaboration every day, whether it is within the walls of Toyota, or in our interaction with our guests."

Toyota also plans to promote virtual hand-holding via an outdoor advertising program in New York City and Los Angeles. Kiosks with high-definition monitors will be erected Aug. 12-14 at New York's Herald Square and near L.A.'s Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex. Passersby in both cities will be prompted to place their hands on the screen to connect with someone on the other side of the country and create digital drawings. They will have the option to upload videos of the interaction to Twitter or get them in an email.

Toyota has secured local marketing rights for the Rio games in Japan, but BMW holds the Olympic sponsorship in the U.S. this year as part of a USOC deal signed in 2010. Toyota's global sponsorship deal with the International Olympic Committee takes over in January and runs through 2024. That covers the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018 and in Beijing in 2022, as well as the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Budapest, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome are competing to host the 2024 Olympics.

Toyota signed the highest-level sponsorship deal possible, known as "Top," which is short for The Olympic Partner program. There 12 "Top" sponsors, including Toyota, Coca-Cola Co., Visa, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, GE, Bridgestone and Samsung.

Toyota's immediate attention is on Rio, where Mr. Hollis is on the ground preparing for his company's turn as official sponsor. "We're excited to join everyone in Rio to watch, learn and cheer on the athletes as Toyota prepares to officially join the Olympic and Paralympic family as a 'Top' sponsor in January of 2017," he said in a statement. "The athletes inspire all of us at Toyota to reach beyond what's possible, and we look forward to sharing that spirit and passion with the rest of the world."