Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Fun With Pump Culture

Something gets run over and squished in one of the new spots for the Toyota Yaris. But unlike the shockeroo smash of recent Jetta spots, this seems entertaining and not at all horrifying.

That’s because the scene comes to us through the techno-magic of flash animation. We watch as a mechanical spider, which, in the beginning, is not so itsy-bitsy, gets flattened, scaled down and reconfigured as a spigot. Going the old nursery song water-spout route one better, the onetime spider climbs right into the Yaris’ gas tank. (There’s anthropomorphism, and now, in our gas-gouged age, welcome to petrol-pomorphism.)

There’s a tactical message here: The Yaris, which is just being introduced in the U.S., puts more juice (even if it’s—ewww—spider juice) in your gas tank. Turns out that the arachnid’s legs were containers of gas, all along; obviously, the spot does take a few close viewings to understand fully. Fresh and clever, it’s part of an integrated campaign for Yaris from Saatchi & Saatchi, Torrance, Calif., that includes two other commercials, Internet work and mobisodes. Figuring it out is well worth the ride.

I love the bright, shiny, clean aesthetic of “Spider” and “Piggy.” Against a blazing white background, small animated objects (all in primary colors that really pop) change form and scale as they interact with this cool little car. In this representation, the auto does have quite a snappy personality, but lest you think it gets too cute, it suddenly grows tentacles, or War of the Worlds-like tripods.

There’s an otherworldly, semi-alien feeling to such almost cutesy, but edgy, tiny shiny objects. It seems to blend the idea of Japanese cuteness and kokeshi dolls with the flash of high-style technology and minimal-modernist, architectural design. Certainly, that Japanesey pop-cultural sensibility is a feeling (and ooh, what a feeling) that makes sense for Toyota.

“Spider” is a little more clever than “Piggy Bank,” but the latter is also strategic, making the point that the car is economical—and requires only small change from the home piggy. The juxtaposition of the cute pink hyper-rounded little porker with the angular sheet metal is amusing. And the look of the pig reminds me of the work of Takashi Murakami. (He’s the artist who did the colorful Louis Vuitton bags, as well as a trademark character called Mr. Pointy, a 23-foot sculpture that’s a cross between a Buddha and a space alien.)

As it turns out, the animation comes from a company called TokyoPlastic, two Brits—a former photographer and an industrial designer/gamer guy—who’ve never been to Japan. But they certainly seem to live there spiritually: other ad work they’ve done, including some spots for Mitsubishi, seems derived from manga comics and anime cartoons.

The juxtaposition of what seems warm and primordial, even tender and human, with cold, hard technology, brings added tension and zip. The Internet spot promoting MP3-compatibility is a bit simpler, and looks more raw. It opens with an iPod-like device on jittery legs as long as stilts. It nears a Yaris, and the car’s tentacles come out to swoop the music player in. Once it does, the car starts rockin’ to the serious beats, and not only is the movement compelling, but the sound suggests the beating of a human heart.

There’s no music in the TV spots, but the sound design throughout is perfectly synched, and wildly memorable. The sound of the spider’s transformation is hollow, clanging without being too industrial, which is no easy feat. The car’s motor sounds whisky-smooth.

There’s also an equally well-executed group of 10-second mobisodes. (By the way, who coined this tech term, and why not “cellisodes”? It’s got a ring to it, I’ll admit, but so far I’ve only heard people pronounce it as if they should be teeny scenes from The Sopranos. If we’re gonna go all pretentious and use the Brit word, why not the appropriately long “o”?)

Anyway, the mobisodes—produced by Greg Harvey of the Famous Group—are 10-second ad wraparounds for two-minute episodes of Prison Break, which will be available by phone to Sprint customers. Since all this stuff is aimed at a young demographic (although it seems age and gender neutral), there’s also a gaming strategy: “Evolution … powered by Yaris.” Toyota will sponsor the Evolution Fighting Championships in July and August, and is offering a $20,000 prize for the best new Yaris cell phone game (through DigiPen, a video game development school).

I like the end of each TV spot, in which a car falls from the white space and seems to split in two—into a sedan and a hatchback—as if it’s a living thing, with cell division. The split is appropriate: The car is not a hybrid, but the campaign is. And every mixture is intriguing.