Usually car companies talk about how awesome their cars are. Since recalling millions of its vehicles, Toyota has had to persuade people their vehicles won't kill them. Today, they bought newspaper ads throughout the country to try to do this.
The full-page ad—which appeared in major markets Sunday—is the first step in a massive PR push as Toyota goes about trying to rehabilitate its image after the company shut down production of eight of its affected models last week. This is not going to be easy given the uniquely terrifying problem a few of their cars had: The gas pedal got stuck, causing drivers to go faster and faster until they died. Late last year, Toyota recalled some 3.8 million cars because of the problem. Tiger Woods did some bad stuff, but he never killed anyone.
So does today's ad make us feel better about not dying in a Toyota? Not really. Instead of the straightforward mea culpa Toyota should have offered, the ad is a mealy-mouthed attempt to spin a major misstep into an honorable sacrifice by Toyota on behalf of its precious customers, so fragile and easily damaged by car crashes. Here is our annotated edition (click for full size):
1) Font, Helvetica: Good choice. Spare and sans-serif, Helvetica projects reliability and remind us of road-signs signs expressly meant to keep us from crashing into things. (DO NOT ENTER.) The font was was in fact originally designed to be devoid of emotional content, a completely neutral form of information conveyance. Incidentally, neutral is the gear Toyota suggests you shift into if your accelerator gets stuck and you find yourself careening out-of-control down the Jersey Turnpike. Write that down!
2) Slogan, "A Temporary Pause. To Put You First": Toyota recalled millions of cars because some of them do the worst thing possible for a car to do: They get stuck in "go". To spin the production stoppage as "putting customers first" rather than "keeping customers from getting killed by our dangerously defective product" is lame. This is like if Abraham Lincoln had proposed abolishing slavery as way to "put black people first." No: slavery is wrong, and so is making cars that sometimes double as coffins with power windows. What about "putting us first" by making sure your cars do not infinitely accelerate for no reason in the first place. Seriously, we're having trouble imagining a worse defect for a car to have. Maybe: The GPS system is screwed up so it only gives you directions to sex offenders' houses?
3) Pause button icon: Taken with the Helvetica font and gray/white color-scheme, we're getting a very iPod vibe here. This is confusing because we don't see much of a connection between a music player renowned for its design and a car that can maybe lead to your fiery demise. FLASH POLL: What song do you want to be listening to when your Camry's accelerator gets stuck under the floor-mat, propelling you at 98 mph through a guardrail on California One, out into the Pacific and eternal sleep? Pantera? Yeah, probably Pantera.
4) Blurb: "Why we've temporarily stopped some of our plants." OK, we are not brand identity consultants, but we've read enough Malcom Gladwell to know that Toyota owners and potential buyers do not care at all about the fact that Toyota has "stopped some of their plants." They are mainly worried about: Is my Toyota going to autonomously attempt a landspeed record when I'm driving to the grocery store? How do I protect my family from this threat that has apparently been lurking right beneath my feet for years? Will I ever feel safe again? The only guy sitting over his cereal and his Sunday New York Times wondering why Toyota has stopped some of its plants is the guy who lives next door to one of those plants and notices the bilious yellow smoke that spews constantly from its smokestacks is gone and he is able to see the mountains.
5) "Toyota Customer Experience Center" hot-line: Hello, thank you for calling the Toyota Customer Experience Center. If you have questions about your vehicle's warranty, please say 'Warranty'. If you'd like to find a Toyota dealer near you, please say 'nearest dealer'. If your accelerator has become stuck to the floor of your vehicle, please scream in abject terror. You have selected [blood-curdling scream]. I'm sorry, all of our Customer Experience Specialists are assisting other customers. Please hold. Your call is important to us.
6) "Toyota: Moving Forward": And there's nothing you can do to stop us. Literally.