Back in October, Toyota invited five shortlisted creative agencies to compete in a “live social media pitch”, giving them $15,000 each to see how much they could get people talking about a zippy, entry-level hatchback.

Saatchi & Saatchi’s solution was a tried-and-tested user-generated ad competition. Most of their budget went on prizemoney: $7000 for first place, $3000 for second and $1000 for third.

Last Monday, from a shortlist of the 10 most popular films (by comments and views), a panel of anonymous judges awarded the top prize to “Clean Getaways” by Brisbane production house Play TV. So far, so social, right? Well, have a look for yourself.

In a week, this short has been accused of being degrading to women and even incestuous. Outraged comments were first published in the competition’s Facebook group and on its YouTube channel , then quoted by various online pundits.

Next came mainstream press headlines including ‘Sexist’: Toyota’s ad campaign backfires and Toyota pulls ‘incestuous, degrading’ ad. The story even made The Times (UK).

Partway through the kerfuffle, Toyota took the short offline and grovelled for public forgiveness. This meant that plenty of people who’d discovered the controversy through secondary reports — rather than as participants in the Yaris competition’s own social media channels — formed their opinions based on secondhand descriptions.

It’s to avoid further reverberations in what The Chaser’s Julian Morrow has called “the media outrage echo-chamber” that I’m deliberately not repeating the offending short’s Carry On-style innuendo. Importantly, encountering this contentious dialogue in flat, inflection-free text before seeing it spoken makes the short seem dull-witted, unfunny and mean-spirited.

Upon viewing it, I was surprised to find the dialogue pacy, and delivered with relative subtlety considering its extremely unsubtle double entendres. Indeed, to his credit, the young dude looks mortified when his date’s dad drops that “she can take a good pounding” line.

So I’m not especially interested in joining the chorus of outrage. This is dog-whistle advertising. By offending what Morrow dubs the “secondary audience”, it tells its intended audience that this is a fun, edgy product. By finding it funny rather than offensive, they’ll be invited into the Yaris in-crowd.

Indeed, perhaps the most instructive response came from the man behind the innuendo, freelance copywriter Micha McDonald, who said:

Yeah — it’s getting totally SLAMMED by everyone — But that’s exactly what we wanted it to do. Basically we put a $60,000 production behind a one-minute dodgy ‘Dick Joke’ that looks like an actual ad — and it WON. That’s social media 4 ya – Gotta love it when the big boys get burnt!! If anyone is offended by this I’m truly sorry — and suck my dick.”

I’ve written elsewhere that treating audiences as the engines of creative content ushers in an ethically vacuous style of marketing. Clients and agencies actively encourage controversy as a cheap shortcut to audience involvement, knowing the mainstream media will report these antics as if they were proper news. Yet advertisers retreat from responsibility for the messages communicated on behalf of their brands.

“It’s not an ad that we are putting to air,” Toyota Australia’s social media manager Todd Connolly initially told Mumbrella. “It’s user-generated content.”

The Advertising Standards Bureau doesn’t make this distinction. Any commercial messages accessible to the public fall under its jurisdiction — in the past it has ruled on websites, Facebook groups and slogans painted on campervans, and recently, it considered a campaign delivered to mobile phones.

As of this morning, the ASB had not received any complaints about “Clean Getaways”.

Intriguingly, McDonald also seems to suggest he was punking the ad industry. Perhaps the user-generated advertising trend richly deserves to be taken in bad faith by users, since their good faith is so cynically exploited by ad-making competitions.

Participants in branded online contests often genuinely want to win, leveraging their own friendship networks to get their entries the necessary votes or “eyeballs”. But by making the branded activity adversarial rather than collaborative, the competition squanders all the goodwill from the “losing” entrants (and their supporters).

The idea of a live social media pitch is itself a further exercise in bad faith. Quite apart from Saatchi’s effort, four other agencies are creating their own Yaris-branded online communities that may end up being discarded in favour of the winning agency.

Where does this goodwill go? Oddly enough for a company that trades on a “feeling”, Toyota doesn’t seem to care.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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