Toyota’s climbable billboard creates buzz for RAV4 Hybrid

The 10-story billboard couldn’t be ignored. Gawkers immediately went to social media.

“Buildering” is an activity during which daring climbers scale urban structures — with or without safety ropes — and usually end up getting arrested. It also usually generates lots of publicity.

When Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. and ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi were dreaming up an outdoor ad campaign to introduce the RAV4 Hybrid to the world, they also wanted to take some risks. But only the conceptual kind.

The result was a 10-story climbable billboard in New York’s Times Square that blew through the visual clutter of the plaza and created instant buzz on social media.

“Sometimes, you have to do something that puts some new kind of risk to it,” said Jack Hollis, Toyota’s vice president of marketing.

The sight of amateur and professional rock climbers scaling the outside of a building in the iconic square last month generated thousands of gawkers who immediately posted to social media. The old-school billboard — because of its scale — quickly found its way to the new-school media that dominate consumer eyeballs.

That was by design. “It doesn’t really make a lot of sense to have a climbing wall in New York City,” Hollis said, meaning that it was bound to get extra attention. “Our expectations were to get people who would probably not necessarily talk about a hybrid and a climbing wall in Times Square to start talking about it.”

Toyota and Saatchi were ready with a series of Internet videos to move the back story onto the Web. The star of the ads is Christine Fate, who gave up her office job to become a rally-car navigator for her driver fiance, Ryan Millen. They race a RAV4.

“People who spend a lot of time online don’t want to see the same things you’ve seen before,” said Hollis. “No one has watched videos of a nonclimber and a professional climber climb a wall in Times Square.”

It didn’t hurt that the billboard went up in time for the New York auto show, site of the hybrid’s premiere a year earlier.

It was an expensive way to get people’s attention — Hollis wouldn’t say how expensive — but a compelling way to deliver a message about risk: not physical risk, necessarily, but a sense of discovery and crossing boundaries.

“How far will you take it” is the campaign’s slogan, an allusion to the hybrid’s fuel economy and range as well as its rugged pretensions. Although hybrids usually are seen as the epitome of moderation, the RAV4 iteration happens to be an all-wheel-drive crossover that Toyota says can take its owner where other hybrids can’t.

Hollis said he considers the campaign a hit. “I’d be lying if I said I could give you the exact return on investment on an outdoor billboard,” he said. “But I will tell you from an expectations standpoint, we’ve exceeded mine, exceeded our company’s.”

Look out for Hollis’ next big project. It won’t be a repeat of the Times Square climbing wall, but it very well could be big. The longtime Toyota executive is not giving any specifics.

“In marketing,” he said, “my goal is to zig when everyone else zags.”

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