Meet the Agency That Dreamed Up Life-Size Hot Wheels

And broke 2 world records in the process

It’s not often that advertisers get to break world records. But when Mistress Creative, a boutique agency based in Los Angeles, was tasked with helping Mattel’s Hot Wheels reach a new demographic, the team members minds went immediately to stunts.

Big ones.

At the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2011 and the X Games in 2012, Mistress and Mattel unveiled life-size, world-record-breaking versions of Hot Wheels products—the 100-foot V-Drop at the first event and, wilder still, the Double Loop Dare at the second.

In tandem with these events, Mistress developed a mythical storyline about a secret Hot Wheels Test Facility, which it told through 11 videos that drew millions of views on YouTube and across social media channels.

We spoke with Damien Eley, one of Mistress’s founding partners and creative directors, about the Clio Award-winning campaign and what it was like to play with Hot Wheels as a grown “toy-car-loving male.” (Adweek and the Clios are owned by affiliates of Guggenheim Partners.)

What were some of the goals of the Hot Wheels campaign?

Hot Wheels was in an interesting position a few years ago, where the average American boy between ages 3 and 8 owned 45 Hot Wheels cars. And men became collectors of Hot Wheels in their 30s, when they bought their kids Hot Wheels. So, there was this huge gap in the market for Hot Wheels … which was this 16- to 25-year-old male audience. The simple lens for our campaign was turning Hot Wheels from a toy brand into an entertainment brand. The more we could make Hot Wheels relevant to a whole new audience, the more new product and licensed opportunities would open up.

How did you land on the idea of doing live stunts?

We were presented with an opportunity very early on in the conversations with Mattel, which was the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500. We decided that was going to be the moment when the whole world looked at Hot Wheels differently. We replicated a Hot Wheels product—called the [V-Drop]—and launched a car off a 100-foot door, along a ramp, and broke the long-distance jump world record.

Alongside that activation, we had in place the social media strategy, [and] we launched a whole bunch of branded content, which was then revealed on a 30-minute TV show that ran straight after the [Indy 500 race]. All the sudden, there was a new voice … that was able to talk to this new audience. The next year … we were presented with an opportunity to do something at the X Games. And that was when we again did another record-breaking stunt, which was the Double Loop. We merged [that event] with a story that was told through branded content through 11 episodes.

Why did you decided to take a narrative approach to the campaign? What about Hot Wheels as a product lent itself to storytelling?

When you look at that basic Hot Wheels product, it’s a die-cast replica of a real car. The guys they have at Mattel—they’re not toy designers, they’re car designers. There’s that aspect of reality that is applied to everything at Hot Wheels. But also, there’s no end to the imaginative way [kids] play with that car. You’ll drive it up a wall; you’ll drop it off a table; you’ll jump a pair of shoes or a coffee cup. So we looked at those two worlds—of reality and imagination—together, and the campaign line that started everything was “Hot Wheels for Real.”

The entire narrative came from the idea of this mythical place called the Hot Wheels Test Facility … [where they] tested cars and tracks on a life-size scale. We sat down with the guys from Mattel, and we had a series of awesome, creative sessions, where we literally rewrote the history of the Hot Wheels brand. It was an internal rallying cry for the guys at Hot Wheels. [They] could look at their brand totally differently.

When you brought the live stunt ideas to Hot Wheels, was there any hesitation on its part?

There was nervousness. There were times during both processes that involved real-life crashes and things that scared a lot of people. But, to their credit, [Mattel] kept going. That moment around both live stunts where we pulled off the world records—we were all together as a group, from our agency alongside people at Mattel, and there was this sense that we’d really achieved something that no one else had done. It was an incredible feeling.

How did the response to the campaign influence your work going forward, as an agency?

I think this campaign and the success that it brought with it inspired us to continue to think big. To be rewarded through that community—and especially the Clios, which has such a broader reach than just the advertising world—really … gave us justification to be able to go into conversations with other clients and say that there is a reward for committing to big things.

When you were coming up with the idea for the Hot Wheels campaign, did you ever look to older Hot Wheels ads for inspiration?

Absolutely. We put together various sizzle reels and lots of referents to develop this whole “Hot Wheels for Real” strategy. We used to take the old ads for Hot Wheels from the '70s and '80s, where you had kids that were pulling off amazing stunts with their toys, and then we matched those shots with action shots from the movies.

As far as kids were concerned, there were no limits to what these cars could do. When you think of that brand being relatable to boys of all ages … suddenly you’ve got this remit to go out and push the boundaries of what’s possible with a car. It was probably one of the greatest jobs you could ever get as a toy-car-loving male. It was a lot of fun.