Barbara Lippert’s Critique: It’s Hip To Be Square

Suicidal robots? Forget about it. On Toyota’s, an animated character hacks off his skull’s rounded parts with a gleaming meat cleaver. He doesn’t stop until he turns his mutilated head into a square box, which makes him very happy indeed.

“Meet the New Cleaver” (actually, it’s called “Round to Square”) is one of 16 bleak, sometimes apocalyptic and, yes, box-based online films (from different directors and production houses) that are part of the new campaign for the relaunch of Toyota’s Scion xb.

Aggressively non-television-y, the work includes wild postings in urban areas—featuring variations of square heads, the postings change every few weeks—and a Web site. The site, an embarrassment of riches, features a sticky cube organized into six different “worlds” that offer the darkly funny and engaging short films as well as prizes, games, music and plenty of enchanting visual mischief.

There’s also an in-cinema ad now running, “Surgery,” that’s pretty terrifying in its relentless promotion of the aesthetic superiority of square heads over ovoids.

Obviously, the box stands for the indomitably boxy Scion. But very little of the box imagery can be grasped in terms of rational, narrative thought—or a conventional marketing strategy. (For that matter, the marketing cliché of “thinking outside of the box” pops up only once in the campaign, spoken by a doofusy dad to a future son-in-law with a cardboard box head in an online spot.) Rather, this thinking is so deeply inside the box that it buries and then blows it up.

When Toyota introduced the vehicle in 2004, it was with an online campaign and a series of guerrilla and experiential ad offerings. The idea was to get the youngins (Gen Y, or the “yout,” as the word is memorably pronounced in My Cousin Vinny) engaged with the Toyota brand, which was considered dull and dowdy.

I tend to disagree with advertisers who think that the uber-cool kids they want to reach will be any more open to advertising, or buying the product, because of “edgy” or “underground” positioning. When they discover that the company is a superpower, the subversion seems even more annoying. But since it launched, the Scion’s positioning and marketing have sidestepped the obviously fake and cloying to achieve something smart and successful.

Let us count the ways. The first and most important is a one-word masterstroke: “Plastics?” No, “scarcity.” Toyota decided to hold back production and make no more than 150,000 vehicles a year, which resulted in many dealers having a waiting list. (The average Scion owner turns out to be more like 37.)

“Surgery,” the in-cinema film that might run on TV in June (with some editing, even for cable), was created by Attik and shot in Romania, which suggests Frankenstein/Dracula territory. It’s the combination of the sound design (clanks, dentist drills) with the medical torture going on behind the fortified, ancient walls that really gives the spot its nauseating kick. A white-coated scientist goes down a long hallway to check on his three subjects, who are tied down to gurneys with metal devices over their heads. He removes the devices on two of them to reveal square heads (no bright, cartoony SpongeBob here, just hacked up flesh). The two men look in the mirror, touch each other’s faces and respond joyfully. The third, however, is out of luck, as he discovers that his head still looks human. “You butcher!” he screams in Romanian (with English subtitles).

“Hammer,” on the Web site, is an amusing, if Borat-ish, spot involving two men who strip down to their underwear and bang on a black box. My fave, “3 Years,” is one of two spots with female appeal. (Why is the target here male?) It’s a sped-up film that follows a young woman who stands in the exact same position every day for years as her head becomes increasingly square.

Every now and then, an actual Scion passes through the Web site, and if you click on it, you can have all sorts of fun: Picture Pimp My Ride produced by a Japanese graphics design student as an homage to Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam.

Click around enough and you can end up linking to the main site, But that’s to be expected—eventually, too much counterprogramming becomes counterproductive. Besides, everyone, even the digerati, know that there’s no free relaunch.