Ad Report Card

This Little Piggy Gets Dismembered

What’s with Toyota’s violent new ads?

The Spot:A pink piggy bank materializes inside a white room. The piggy looks around for a moment to get its bearings, then notices it’s not alone: There’s a mean-looking car a few feet away, eyeing the piggy with bad intentions. The pig trembles with fear as the car extends a long, metal tentacle from under its hood. The tentacle attacks the piggy with a laser, a circular saw, and a hammer, reducing the little pig to crumbled shards. Then it grabs one of the gold coins the piggy bank had held and snatches its loot back under the car’s hood. “Starting at $12,405,” reads an on-screen graphic. “Yaris, from Toyota,” says the announcer.

Yaris: Piggy It seems some of you are disturbed and confused by this Yaris ad. I’ve received a lot of reader mail about it, and your criticisms fall into two main categories: 1) You are troubled by the brutal treatment of that animated piggy bank. 2) You think Toyota’s sales pitch is garbled.

First, the garbled sales-pitch complaint: Some of you feel that the ad’s plot—the Yaris smashes a piggy bank and steals the money inside—suggests that this car will “break the bank” (as the idiom goes). I agree that a different scenario might have made the ad’s message clearer, but this seems like a pretty minor misstep. For one, the price tag prominently displayed at the end of the spot makes it awfully hard to miss the ad’s point. (And if you look closely, the car steals one coin but actually leaves some other coins behind. It’s not greedy!) Even my e-mail complainants admit that, ultimately, they got the idea.

As for the dismembered pig: Your e-mails have called this ad “creepily violent” and expressed dismay over “that poor piggy bank.” One person thinks the take-away here is that “Yaris cars kill cute things.” What seems to really bother folks is the piggy’s frightened reaction. It blinks its eyes in disbelief at the psychotic car, takes a wary step backward, and shakes with terror just before the car’s laser slices it in half.

Yaris: Spider The sequence is slightly over the top. What’s more, in another Yaris ad the car runs over a spider, causing it to squeal in pain (the spider is made out of gasoline nozzles, and the ad is meant to suggest that the Yaris is fuel-efficient). In a third ad, the Yaris captures and eats an insect (the insect represents an MP3 player, and the ad conveys that the Yaris has an audio jack for your iPod). Clearly, this car hates animals.

But why does it hate animals? I think it’s a way to make a teensy, economy car seem a bit tougher and less emasculated. (And really, it’s harmless. Compare these spots to the vile Dodge Caliber ad in which another cheap-o subcompact asserts its manliness by making fun of a “fairy.”)

“The car itself is very huggable, but we didn’t want a Herbie the Love Bug vibe,” says Harvey Marco, executive creative director at Saatchi and Saatchi Los Angeles, which designed the campaign. Marco told me these ads target 18- to 34-year-olds, and more specifically a demographic he refers to as “upbeat indies.” These people have a “bull____ meter that is really high,” says Marco, “so we didn’t want to show actors in the ad and suggest that ‘these people are really cool … just like you!’ Personally, I hate when advertisers try to identify with me, and we didn’t want to risk doing that.”

The campaign ends up veering in the opposite direction. No people, no shots of the car in action, and no attempt to forge an emotional bond between car and consumer. Where are the high-speed maneuvers filmed in slow-motion on a snaky desert road? Where’s the happy crew of passengers pulling surfboards off the roof rack? Instead, the four Yaris television spots use silly animated bits to focus on: 1) the car’s low cost; 2) its fuel economy; 3) its compatibility with MP3 players; and 4) its plethora of interior compartments and cup holders. This utilitarian approach seems more typical of an ad campaign for a vacuum cleaner.

Yaris: MP3 And I think it works. The ads are appropriate to a low-cost, no-frills product like the Yaris. Meanwhile, look at the ads for Honda Fit—another inexpensive gas-sipper from Japan (and the Yaris’ major competitor right now). The Fit’s ads, according to an interview with a Honda executive in the New York Times, “pay tribute to influences as diverse as video games, hairstyles, professional wrestling, Japanese science fiction films and the West Coast customized-car culture of Ed Roth.” One Fit ad compares the car’s roofline spoiler to a mullet haircut, and another associates the Fit with early-’80s arcade games. The Fit’s slogan—“The Fit is Go!”—is carefully a-grammatical and uttered by a robot, in hopes that it will feel like organic Japanese kitsch. The whole thing is a bit much. The Fit campaign seems to be trying too hard to turn a cheap imported car into a cult icon.

Grade: B+. The Yaris isn’t trying too hard. It’s just selling its strengths. How basic is this campaign? It doesn’t even bother with a tag line—just “Yaris, From Toyota.”