A Los Angeles woman is suing Toyota for $10 million over a marketing campaign that she claims "punked" her into incorrectly believing she was being stalked.
In a lawsuit filed Sept. 28 in Los Angeles Superior Court, Amber Duick claims she had difficulty eating, sleeping and going to work during March and April of last year after she received e-mails for five days from a fictitious man called Sebastian Bowler, from England, who said he was on the run from the law, knew her and where she lived, and was coming to her home to hide from the police.
There was even a fictitious MySpace page reportedly created for Bowler.
Although Bowler did not have Duick's current address, he sent her links to his My Space page as well as links to video clips of him causing trouble all over the country on his way to her former house in Los Angeles, according to the lawsuit.
"Amber mate! Coming 2 Los Angeles. Gonna lay low at your place for a bit till it all blows over," the man wrote in one e-mail.
Ficticious Man Claimed He Knew Alleged Victim, and Was Coming to Her House
Duick's attorney said the marketing company went so far as to send Duick a bill for damages the fictitious man supposedly made to a hotel room.
"Amber, ran into a little problem at the hotel," a note with the invoice stated. "After I'm done visiting you, I'm going to go back and sort out that front desk Muppet."
The alleged harassment lasted five days, according to the suit, and frightened Duick so much she contacted neighbors, friends and family, and the occupant of her former home about the man she feared was coming to visit. Her attorney declined to comment as to whether or not she called the police. She even made her longtime boyfriend sleep with a club and mace next to the bed for protection.
"As a result of the e-mails, [Duick] found it extremely difficult to work, and her job performance suffered," the complaint said. "[She] was unable to perform her job duties at standard levels."
It turns out the prank was actually part of a marketing effort executed by the Los Angeles division of global marketing agency Saatchi & Saatchi, which created the campaign to promote the Toyota Matrix, a new model launched in 2008.
Woman Sues Toyota Over Prank Marketing Campaign
Duick claims she was ridiculed by those she contacted about the fictitious man from England after they found out it was a prank, but to her it was no laughing matter.
Her attorney, Nick Tepper, said the Matrix campaign was similar to "Punk'd" a former MTV show starring Ashton Kutcher that featured celebrities being set up by their friends for elaborate pranks. Toyota's marketers used the Internet to find people who wanted to set up friends to be "punked," and Duick was set up by a friend of hers, he said.
"They had some people who decided they wanted to use the new social media, and they didn't really think about the consequences," Tepper said. "Clearly, their objective with those people was to terrify them first and embarrass them second. … Obviously, they're trying to use this campaign to sell to someone other than my client."
In a statement written on behalf of Toyota and Saatchi about the lawsuit, Toyota Spokesman Chad Harp said Duick voluntarily participated in the alleged prank.
"The person who made this claim specifically opted in, granting her permission to receive campaign emails and other communications from Toyota," he wrote in an e-mail.
"It was definitely something where people had to opt in to receive campaign communications," he said. "Numerous people opted in for this campaign. It was a national campaign."
Attorney for Toyota Says Duick Agreed to Participate
Tepper, Duick's attorney, said he discussed the campaign with Toyota's attorneys earlier this year, and they said the "opting in" Harp referred to was done when Duick's friend e-mailed her a "personality test" that contained a link to an "indecipherable" written statement that Toyota used as a form of consent from Duick.
Tepper, said that during those legal negotiations, Toyota's lawyers claimed Duick signed the written legal agreement, which they said amounts to "informed written consent."
"So if [Duick] signed something, she's informed that she's signing 'A,' but in fact she's signing something else," Duick's attorney said. "It's written and it is consent, but you're not informed about the thing that you're actually signing up for? "It didn't say someone was going to be stalking my client. It was premised upon keeping my client in the dark, upon fooling her that these e-mails were real."
Toyota's Matrix Prank Campaign
Harp said Toyota cannot discuss the legal aspects of the case, but marketing agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi are always thinking of new and innovative ways to attract consumers for clients like Toyota.
"They are our agency of record," he said. "We have numerous advertising and marketing campaigns that we do with them. … You see everything going on these days, so there's numerous different realms in terms of what people are looking into in terms of marketing campaigns."
Saatchi & Saatchi told the marketing magazine OMMA last year that it had developed the campaign to target men under 35 who hate advertising.
The prank campaign, Saatchi creative director Alex Flint told the magazine, should gain the appreciation from "even the most cynical, anti-advertising guy."
Harp said Saatchi & Saatchi continues to work with Toyota, but its Matrix campaign ended last year. "It's been suspended for quite some time," he said, but it had run its course. "It did follow our projected timeline."