'Saved by Zero': The Toyota Ad That Won't Stop

  • Share
  • Read Later

Congratulations, Toyota. In the middle of a deep recession, when consumers are hesitant to open their wallets, companies have to pull out all the stops to get their attention. But it isn't every day that an unforgettable (or unforgivable?) marketing campaign can drive so many people to distraction, causing them to loathe a usually admired brand.

Like most beleaguered automakers these days, Toyota is offering a very attractive zero-percent financing rate on a dozen of its models. The 30-second commercial touting the program, which is saturating televised sporting events and other prime-time TV, has left viewers vitriolic. In the ad, a giant red zero moves around the screen while a sedated-sounding man hauntingly drones the line "Saved by zero" — financing, get it? — over and over. The jingle is actually a re-recording of a 1980s song of the same name by British new-wave band the Fixx. "It's right at that border where it's catchy enough that it gets stuck in your head, but not good enough that you like it," says Dan Sarles, a business school graduate who is among a growing legion of viewers complaining about the ad online. (See the best and worst Super Bowl ads.)

In other words, it's like water torture, and people just want it to stop. This week Sports Illustrated football scribe Peter King, author of the religiously read Monday Morning Quarterback column on si.com, wrote, "Someone please — I IMPLORE YOU — put that 'Saved by Zero' Toyota commercial out of its misery." About a month ago Colin Anderson, a freshman at Binghamton University in New York, was watching football in his dorm room when the once again ad appeared. "It was probably like the 20th time I had seen it that day," Anderson says. "It was driving me crazy." So he started a Facebook group, Stop Playing Toyota's 'Saved by Zero' Commercial. During its first week, 400 people signed up. Two weeks ago, the group had 1,200 members. Today, it's about 6,500 strong.

"I'm joining this group on behalf of my non-Facebook boyfriend who screams in agony whenever this commercial starts," wrote one commenter. "I have two ice picks that I keep by the couch to jab into my ears when it comes on," wrote another. "Helps." A clever YouTube user spliced "Saved by Zero" screen grabs into the trailer for The Ring, a horror film. The plot: if you see the commercial, you die. (See the 50 worst cars of all time.)

All of the invective hurled the spot's way begs the question: Can an ad campaign be considered successful even if it's noticed for the wrong reasons? Toyota, as well as some marketing experts, thinks so. The Japanese carmaker is laughing off the criticism — and it may be laughing all the way to the bank. According to the company, the campaign is sending viewers to its showrooms in a dismal economic environment. "Business stinks," says Toyota marketing spokesman Joe Tetherow. The company's U.S. sales dropped 23% in October. "Our goal with the ad is to generate floor traffic, and it's doing just that. The criticism keeps the deal out there, but even in a negative context, it can be a positive. I'm sorry that everybody didn't like it."

That's an understatement. But it's true that all of the negative attention — the news stories, the blog rants, the insulting YouTube videos — equates to free media for the Toyota brand. "That's worth a lot, especially in these tough times," says Akshay Rao, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota. "You may dislike the Toyota ad for the aesthetics, but the underlying message of zero percent is coming through. Toyota is looking for recognition, recall and comprehension of the message." As painful as it is to admit — or hear the commercial yet again — "Saved by Zero" scores high on those three measures.

O.K., but when will Toyota relieve our pain? "To all the critics out there: the commercial will be over by the end of the month," Tetherow says. That's when the zero-financing offer expires. Sure, we'll have to suffer it through Thanksgiving football games. But for those muting the TV set whenever the ad airs, wishing it would stop, Christmas will come early this year.

See TIME's Pictures of the Week.

See the Cartoons of the Week.