Recently, ABC news featured a case of a reality game prank ending up in a lawsuit. A Los Angeles woman sues Toyota for being selected a target for their pervasive marketing campaign YourOtherYou. Apparently, a friend of the woman had selected her a suitable victim for a fun ‘prank’. For five days, she received emails from a fictitious man called 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. Needless to say, the woman was not amused when the last mail exposed the prank and linked to a promo video for Toyota’s new car.
The case is a schoolbook example of unaware participation; a reality game akin to the Vem gråter case in our book, where the participants are kept in the dark as to what is going on until the game is over. From Vem gråter we learned that when you don’t know if what you are experiencing is for real or not, you start to invent very serious interpretations of the experience, and that these interpretations are scarier than what the designers intended. In Vem gråter, a fairly harmless character was interpreted as a potential lunatic. In YourOtherYou, the mails were interpreted not as a nuisance but as threats from a stalker.
(Apparently, the prank victims signed a legal agreement form as part of a fake personality test, that was mailed to them before the prank started. Whether this will hold in court is an open issue; the agreement was in an unrelated context and rather obscure.)
The blogosphere is flooded with condemning comments, all highlighting the obvious problems with the production: that there was no clear opt-in and no opt-out, and that the theme was scary. Still, this campaign was produced, and it was actually a pretty impressive production, with a huge budget and lot of attention to detail that has received at least one award. How could a professional designer end up with such a catastrophic design, how come Toyota went with it, and how come it was rewarded?
A MediaPost discussion from July 2008 (long before the lawsuit) shreds some light on the issue. The article points out that the target audience for the campaign were men under 35, a group that hate all forms of advertising. So, in order to reach the group the market company found a possible exploit: the target group loves to play pranks on each other. Thus, they came up with the idea to offer men the opportunity to play pranks on their friends.
The MediaPost article is a discussion between three (male) marketing experts who have tried out the experience by sending pranks to their friends. The discussion is appreciative, in particular of the level of detail in giving all of the prank characters an ‘internet life’, complete with myspace pages. The discussion never questions the tacit assumption behind the campaign: that men under 35 have a homosocial and age-homogeneous network of friends. Neither does it actually ever go into the experience of the friends who were subjected to the pranks; instead the participants evaluate the experience from the perspective of the prankster:
OMMA: I enjoyed being able to keep track of the prank on that dashboard of sorts, which let me know what messages my friend was receiving as the prank progressed through its five-day run.
Brady: That, to me, was the interesting part of this, where it had evolved from other things I’d seen. Really, what’s the fun in a joke if you can’t see the expression on someone’s face or find out what’s happening? I thought that was a nice evolution of the prank.
I think that this discussion reflects also how the design team imagined their campaign: they saw themselves in the role of the prankster and thought it would be fun to play pranks on their friends. And if subjected to a prank; well you just have to face up to it, right? The active, strong and rich man under 35 that can afford their cars can also handle a joke. I’ve only found one blog that foresaw that the campaign would end with a lawsuit: Streetflips.com, a currently passive blog run by women.