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Three Lessons from Toyota’s ‘Swagger Wagon 2’

Arts & Culture

Yes, hip hop is global, but using it still requires understanding cultural nuance

Rob Fields, Theory + Impact
  • 6 august 2014

Believe me, Toyota, I get it.  You had a huge and unexpected viral hit with the original Swagger Wagon back in 2010. 12MM+ views to date, in fact.  It was so fresh, unexpected, and well done.  Remember?

I can only imagine how Swagger Wagon 2 came about.  It’s been four years, so why not update the original with some 2014 swagger?  I’m sure your agency Saatchi & Saatchi LA thought it was a great idea when they suggested it.

Only problem: Swagger Wagon 2 misses the mark and it didn’t have to.

Here’s what went wrong:

1.     You signed off on a lazy idea.
The question is always how to do something that’s fresh for an audience that are already smarter than you are?  Yes, audiences loved the original SW.  But to update it with new raps and (Busta) Rhymes is only an incremental improvement.  We’ve already seen this idea with a white, suburban family.  More interesting, as an example, would’ve been to see this idea repurposed with a Latin or Asian family, and incorporating some of those cultural specifics.

2.     It feels. . .wrong.
The original felt respectful of black culture.  This one doesn’t, starting with the neckrolling, finger wagging tween girl at the beginning. Eww.  Then again, we’re in an age when an Australian rapper can appropriate black southern sonics and ride that all the way to the top of the Billboard charts.  In the case of Iggy Azalea, The Roots’ Questlove offers a different take. Point is: There are sensitivities to be aware of.  A white, suburban family saying, “Who dat is?”  Really?  That Soulja Boy hop from 2011, but no Jookin’? No DLow Shuffle? We all get that hip hop is a global cultural phenomenon, but this family’s usage of black slang and old dance moves doesn’t make minivans cool, it makes you look clueless and late.  I’m sure that’s NOT how you wanted to be seen.

3.    It achieved exactly what you didn’t want it to.
The point of efforts like this is to NOT draw immediate attention to the brand that’s being promoted.  Typically, the goal is to get viewers to come away feeling more positive about the brand because the brand provided a smart, engaging and enjoyable experience.  This spot immediately reminds us right away that this is an ad.  That’s a fail.

Going forward, here are some things to think about:

1.     Do a deep dive on the cultural concepts you’re using.
What does “swagger” mean in 2014 vs what it meant in 2010?  Further what does it mean for a white, suburban family? White people CAN be cool (see timeless icons such as Sean Connery, for example, or more contemporary stars such as Jason Statham).  But, as is the case with everyone, you have to find your own way of expressing it.  Which brings me to a second point.

2.     Don’t jack black culture and expect its cool to immediately rub off on you.

It doesn’t work like that.  Coolness, itself a form of authenticity, is earned.  Thinking otherwise just puts your privilege on full display.  This is an illustration of the slang-in-the-wrong-hands example that I used in an earlier Forbes piece. There are people who’ve lived their entire lives with the same cultural markers that you’re only now trying to leverage.  In your attempt to push the original idea further, you misread and overstepped the boundaries.

3.     Demand that your agency have a truly diverse POV.

You absolutely MUST have people in the room who understand the culture you’re trying to leverage.  It’s not enough to know and love hip hop: You have to “get” it and the context from which it springs.  At least bring in a roster agency, such as Burrell, to provide a multicultural POV.  As alternatives, there are other resources out there such as CommonGround or Team Epiphany, to name just a few that come to mind.  Any of these shops could’ve taken that same idea and come back to you with something way more fly, more relevant and more impactful than what you have.

I understand your challenge: How do you make minivans cool? No one gets in one and feels they’re digging the scene with any kind of gangsta lean. But in your efforts to repeat the clear satire of the original SW, you ended up turning off a lot of potential buyers. Not just black people, mind you. Your audience is smarter and savvier than you’re giving them credit for.

Finally, remember: Your tagline “Let’s Go Places” is about moving forward, not revisiting–or resting on–past successes.  With that in mind, compare the new video to the original.  The question is this: To what extent did you and your agency rise to the challenge of improving upon it?

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