Mitsubishi Virtual Test Drive Isn't So Virtual

Over 5,000 People Took Outlander for Actual Drive From Their Computers

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NEW YORK ( -- More than 5,000 people took the new 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport for a test drive during the first 10 days of this month without ever going outside.

In one of the most unusual and innovative digital-marketing campaigns in the auto space, Mitsubishi Motors North America teamed with its ad agency, 180 LA, and production company B-Reel to produce what it called the world's first online test drive. Dubbed "Mitsubishi Live Drive," the program allowed users to actually operate a 2011 Outlander Sport using the arrow keys on their computer keyboard and watching on the screen from one of four different cameras, including the driver's view.

This was no simulator -- the vehicle itself was parked on a closed course created at the Port of Long Beach, Calif. (where viewers could clearly see the giant Maersk shipping containers on the course). The Outlander was fitted with special software, robotics and video cameras that allowed users to remotely operate the vehicle from their computers. The car could only be driven within the boundaries of the course, and Mitsubishi had people on-site with an automatic kill switch if anything went wrong.

Special software, robotics and video cameras allowed users to remotely operate the Outlander from their computers.
Special software, robotics and video cameras allowed users to remotely operate the Outlander from their computers.
And, while nothing did go wrong, it certainly made for some, shall we say, adventuresome driving. "You should have seen the people who were trying to drive at 11 o'clock at night," joked William Gelner, executive creative director for 180 LA.

Mr. Gelner helped design the overall campaign, which includes TV, print, digital and direct mail and runs through January. The online component of the Live Drive only lasted from Nov. 1 until Nov. 10 at Drivers could navigate the course for two minutes, and then a new driver took over. So, roughly 30 people an hour had a chance to "live drive" the car.

"When we pitched and won the business, we went down there and got to know all their cars. One of the things that struck us was a lot of their brands, especially this one, are chock full of technology that is normally reserved for luxury cars like the BMWs and such," Mr. Gelner said of the Outlander, which starts at $18,495. "The navigation screen is big and cool, the iPod integration, the Bluetooth ... so with all that technology we figured we should tell the story with a bit of technology."

180 LA partnered with B-Reel in producing the online site. Then it was a matter of pitching it to Mitsubishi.

"To their credit, they embraced what was a bold, ambitious idea," Mr. Gelner said. "They're in a situation right now where they really can't afford to play by the rules in terms of spending tons of dough and going by the marketing rulebook that exists in the automotive industry. They had to do something that would stand out."

"It's strange, it's bizarre, it's risky, but it's certainly rewarding," said Nicole Muniz, executive producer for B-Reel.

Her B-Reel colleague, creative director Ben Tricklebank, said the biggest concern was how to make it fun for the end user and tie it in with a way to allow drivers to get a sense of the Outlander's features. "Obviously you're not sitting in the car, you're just controlling the car on a track, so there's a big disconnect there," he said. So while "driving" the car, users can roll over certain markers that allow them to see the special features in the car.

And at this point, Mitsubishi needs to show what it can do. Outlander sales were down 24% last year at 10,283 units, according to Automotive News figures, from 13,471 units in 2009. The automaker announced last week that year-to-date sales of the model are up 19.8% over 2009 without citing specific unit numbers.

There's a reason why that aspect of the promotion lasted only 10 days. "It's probably not viable long-term," said public relations/social-media expert Peter Shankman. "The end result is, you're still sitting in your living room or office," he said. "You do it once it's pretty much going to be the same. But this seems pretty cool for a one-time thing."

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