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How To Avoid Newsletter Scare Tactics

Jordan McCollum Posted by

Toyota and their advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi must have thought they were onto something huge when they launched a series of emails last year. And then this week, AdAge reports, they were slapped with a lawsuit by one of their subscribers/victims. The plaintiff in this case was enrolled in the email marketing campaign when a friend decided to play a prank on her—the genesis of the Toyota/Saatchi campaign.

The emails were sent from “Sebastian Bowler.” In his emails, he told subscribers that he knew them personally, the suit alleges:

Mr. Bowler’s digital missives to Ms. Duick indicated he knew her, knew her address and was coming with his pit bull, Trigger, to stay with her to avoid the cops. In his second e-mail to her, Mr. Bowler listed his MySpace page, which is still up (although it says he last logged in June 2008). His video and pictures on MySpace “depict Mr. Bowler as a fanatical English soccer fan who enjoyed drinking alcohol to excess,” the suit says. His MySpace page also shows a photo with an arrow pointing to “me” and the caption “my mate took this photo which shows me right before the riot.”

One of the nine e-mails to Ms. Duick, the suit alleges, was a bill for $78.92 from a motel for Mr. Bowler’s one-night stay there, plus damage to a TV set and picture frame. He had listed her as a reference and told the motel to send her the bill, the complaint says. . . .

The final e-mail had a link to a video that showed Mr. Bowler driving into a drive-in movie where the film “Imbecile” was playing. The out-of-focus film shows an old man laughing continuously, revealing to Ms. Duick that “she had been punked” and all the e-mails were part of an ad campaign for the Matrix, the suit claims.

Specifically, the plaintiff is suing because she was convinced “a disturbed and aggressive” stranger was coming to her house. She was “terrified” and “slept with a machete next to her bed and she slept with mace. She could barely sleep or eat normally.”

While becoming physically ill with fear is a strong reaction, and while the case will most likely be settled out of court, the victims’ reactions seem like something Saatchi and Toyota might have at least passingly considered as they planned this campaign. What did they think they would accomplish by trying to convince people that someone involved in riots and riotous living (and some of the other “maniacs” look even scarier) had their address and expected to evade arrest at her house?

Yeah, maybe the friend got a good laugh (if s/he even got to see what was happening—I’m hoping s/he was far enough away that s/he had no idea the kind of stress she caused the plaintiff). But the recipients of the pranks obviously didn’t all agree. Even if the emails didn’t terrify most of their recipients, I can’t imagine how pretending to stick us with a bill for a wrecked hotel room would somehow associate the Toyota Matrix with a positive message in our minds.

Yeah, pranks are fun (when you’re the one pulling them, and when you get to see the reaction, not terrorize your friends for a week). And they can even sometimes be an effective marketing tool. But somehow, this doesn’t seem like the association Toyota needs to move cars.

What do you think? Should Saatchi and Toyota have thought twice about this? Or is this a good way to increase buzz and awareness around their product?

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About the Author: Jordan McCollum is a staff writer for the popular marketing blog Marketing Pilgrim. She has worked in search engine optimization with clients including 3M, Little Giant Ladders and ADP. After graduating from Brigham Young University, Jordan joined the SEO copywriting team at the Internet marketing firm 10x Marketing. After 10x closed its doors in December 2006, Jordan became a freelance writer and Internet marketing consultant specializing in SEO. She also has extensive experience with web analytics, conversion rate enhancement and e-mail marketing.

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