Toyota Is Standing by Saatchi

Toyota last week said it will not yank its $400 million ad account from Saatchi & Saatchi as a result of marketing materials created by the agency that were deemed by some to be racially insensitive.

Rev. Jesse Jackson last week blasted Toyota and Saatchi for a promotional postcard showing a smiling black man who sports a bright gold SUV-shaped tooth jewel. Jackson maintained it is not the first instance of insensitivity in Toyota’s advertising and urged a consumer boycott of the automaker. He also demanded that Toyota fire Saatchi, whose office here has handled the account for nearly 25 years.

“The creation and placement of offensive marketing material speaks to the persistent problem of racial and cultural insensitivity,” Jackson said in a statement condemning the work. In addition to Saatchi’s ouster, he demanded an apology and a commitment by the company to offer more employment opportunities for African Americans.

Toyota has withdrawn the postcard and said it will comply with all but one of Jackson’s demands.

“They asked us to fire Saatchi, but we don’t think that’s the right solution,” said Mike Michels, national media manager for Toyota. “If there is a problem with one of our cars, we don’t cut the head off of some guy on the assembly line.”

Michels acknowledged that a Toyota representative signed off on the postcard before 420,000 copies were circulated to bars and restaurants in six major cities. He added that the uproar has prompted the company to review its procedures for approving work from Saatchi.

Jackson and representatives from his organization, Operation Push, visited Toyota headquarters in Torrance, Calif., last week, meeting with executives there and with Saatchi L.A. president Scott Gilbert.

“Toyota said they will not fire us, and we are certainly pleased to hear that,” said Gilbert. “I think we can all dial up our sensitivity meters and learn from this.”

It is not the first controversy of its kind to engulf Toyota and Saatchi. Three years ago, they were hit with similar charges when a Corolla ad with the headline “Unlike your last boyfriend, it goes to work every morning” ran in Jet, a magazine for African Americans, and six other general-audience publications.