The Return of China's Taxi Fitness Queen

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A shot taken from the WOW campaign's Sina Weibo account Tuesday, Feb. 14.
A shot taken from the WOW campaign's Sina Weibo account Tuesday, Feb. 14.

She's baack.

The 1980s-inspired fitness instructor who shocked Chinese commuters with her over-the-top persona last summer is once again urging white collar workers to get fit, even if it means working out while riding in a taxi.

Shanghai-based Touchmedia, which puts interactive ads on seatback screens in taxis, reported massive numbers from that first campaign featuring "WOW gal" and her two male sidekicks: 170 million views in cabs, 1.5 million online views and 21,000 people who signed up for a 45-day health challenge.

"The first year's numbers were way out of expectations, we have no idea what to expect this year," said Nancy Pon, general manager of Touchevents, a subsidiary of Touchmedia.

The first phase of the latest campaign, a teaser video, debuts in cabs across China on Wednesday -- featuring mullets, sweatbands and bright green tights being pulled onto hairy legs.

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Different videos will be unveiled every 15 days between now and June 15.

Marketers involved in the public fitness campaign include equipment maker Life Fitness and New Balance. Who knew New Balance makes bright green sneakers?

"WOW gal" is of course none other than the normally elegant Ms. Pon, whose prominent role in the videos spurred the chatter last summer on China's vibrant social-media networks -- for which Touchmedia was totally unprepared.

"We had no particular plans originally on the social-media side, which was probably stupid of us," said Mark Stevens, Touchmedia's executive creative director. When the team alerted management that the videos were becoming highly popular online, their response at the time was to freak out, he said.

"They were like, 'We need two weeks to get everyone together and make a plan,' and I'm like, 'No no no, we've got to go right here, right now,'" Mr. Stevens recalled.

Touchmedia is ready to take on China's millions of microbloggers this time, posting a photo of the three fitness coaches and a Valentine's Day message on the campaign's Sina Weibo microblog account on the eve of the rollout.

"We learned that people want to engage, they want to participate, they have an opinion, they want to share what they've seen and they want to discuss," Ms. Pon said. "In the past we were very protective of everything ... but now we realize we have to use social media simultaneously, not keep everything limited to the taxi."

Ms. Pon's fame is likely to continue to grow -- she received a variety of job offers after the first campaign, including game-show and radio-hosting gigs. She's concerned, though, about her onscreen persona overshadowing her real life.

"Is there a chance I lose credibility on the professional side because I'm associated with this wacky character?" she said.

Touchmedia operates about 40,000 screens in taxis in six Chinese cities, including more than 2,000 recently installed in Hong Kong cabs.

The company has also expanded to Canada, partnering with Play Taxi Media, and aims to complete installation of 2,000 seatback screens in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary in the next few months. Early results have shown engagement numbers similar to those in China, with more than 80% of people telling researchers that they use the screen regularly, Touchmedia said.

Clients in Canada include Clearly Contacts, telecoms provider Telus and travel services provider Flight Centre.

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