Backmarker: Toyota’s Amazing Motorcycle Ad

Mark Gardiner | October 22, 2015

Toyota Makes the Best Motorcycle Ad of the Year

Motorcycles outnumbered trucks when Wondros Productions showed up a Superstition OHV area to shoot “Blow Off Steam”.
Collectively, we motorcyclists have a chip on our shoulder. We bemoan the fact that national championship racing series are found only on obscure cable channels, or aren’t on TV at all. And when our sport gets coverage in a mainstream newspaper or magazine, we’re all, like, “Ooh… ‘non-endemic’ exposure.”

But there’s one way that motorcycles get a ton of mainstream media exposure, and that’s as accessories in ads for other products. Fashion magazines are full of motorcycles, and countless ads for products from jeans to ED drugs put a motorcycle in the background to lend some cool factor to otherwise-lame products.

It’s to the point now where I see a motorcycle in a commercial and think, “Yeah, yeah, you’re cool, you’ve got a bike, big deal.”

But a new ad for Toyota Tacoma pickup trucks is a whole different animal.

The first time I saw it I was, like, “Holy crap! What was that?” There are more motorcycles in it than there are trucks. You could easily mistake if for a motorcycle ad, except for two things: It’s cooler than any motorcycle ad, and I doubt that any motorcycle company would countenance such edgy riding in their spots. OK, three things; no motorcycle company has the sack it takes to produce an ad with this kind of budget. (I meant sack is in, ‘big sack of money’, of course.)

The ad ends with the simple message: ‘Play Now’. And what you should do is click this image and play it, so you know what I’m talking about.

As soon as I saw it had to find out who made it, and how they managed to convince Toyota to create and run a spot that shares so much screen time with motorcycles.

A quick search online led me to Toyota’s main U.S. ad shop: the Los Angeles office of Saatchi & Saatchi, a giant multinational ad agency. I knew I was on to something when I went to SaatchiLA.com and saw a big photo of a guy dressed in an enormous rabbit head, in mid-air on a motocross bike, right on their website’s home page. And I was pleasantly surprised when the agency quickly got back to me, after I filled out one of those ubiquitous online Contact Forms.

SaatchiLA Creative Director John Payne is a lifelong bike nut who admitted, “It’s rare that your personal passions get to influence the work that much.” Wonder if he’ll get a thank-you note from the MIC? He deserves one.
SaatchiLA Creative Director John Payne is a lifelong bike nut who admitted, “It’s rare that your personal passions get to influence the work that much.” Wonder if he’ll get a thank-you note from the MIC? He deserves one.

SaatchiLA hooked me up with John Payne, who was the Creative Director on the Play Now campaign, and he seemed positively happy to spend a good part of his Saturday talking about how this commercial came together.

The spot, which has the working title ‘Blow Off Steam’ is part of a whole ‘Play Now’ campaign for the Tacoma truck line. John made sure to name Verner Soler, Steve Townsend and Max Wang, who also contributed to the spot from the agency side, but of that creative team, only Payne is a motorcycle nut.

“That’s more my influence, I grew up riding dirt bikes and street bikes,” John told me. “My first motorcycle was a Bultaco when I was 12, and I’ve had motorcycles ever since. I never competed, but I always looked up to Bob Hannah and Broc Glover, the legends of the MX world back in the day. I’ve got a garage full of bikes; a couple of old Triumphs, I’ll probably always have a Bultaco; I love the way those old two-strokes look and sound.”

After getting out of college, he got a job at the Richards Group in Dallas, which was a well-regarded regional ad shop. Working his way from Art Director to Creative Director, he also worked his way to Chiat-Day in Los Angeles – a creative hotbed. He’s been at SaatchiLA for the last five years or so.

“The reason the bikes are so prevalent in the campaign is that motorcycles are kinda universally loved and accepted by people who are into trucks,” he told me. “Surfing [is cool but it] is a West Coast thing; and down in the Southeast going 4×4 mudding is really popular, but someone up North or out West can’t relate to the swamps. The one sport that is universally cool is motocross. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Florida or New York, or California or right in the middle of the country, people ride motocross.”

When John pitched the spot to Toyota’s marketing team, he emphasized the way riding is a brotherhood. “People come together when they’re out in the desert, or the pine forests; wherever they congregate with dirt bikes, and ATVs, and jet skis,” he told Toyota’s execs. “You get out on the lake, or in the desert and you make friends. You come across other people that you never knew before, and the next think you know you’re riding together and you’re friends.”

“That’s a big part of the campaign; to celebrate the way people come together when they’re out there, having fun,” he said. “Our goal is that someone sitting at home will think, ‘God I’ve got to get out there. I want to join that pack, and be part of that crew’.”

Even though, obviously, most Tacoma truck buyers aren’t motocross riders, Toyota’s marketing department bought into the idea right away.

“Some trucks are designed to haul lumber, and for work,” he said. “But the Tacoma was really designed to haul your cool toys around. It’s got places to tie your stuff down, places to stow your gear, it’s as if it was designed for riders.”

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Stunt coordinator Pat Romano used toy trucks and bikes to show a crack team of stunt professionals what he was looking for. John Payne described this as, “tough-guy choreography.”

Once Toyota had approved the concept, SaatchiLA hired Wondros to produce the spot (which was directed by Christian Weber). Wondros’ first call was to Pat Romano, the President of Stunts Unlimited.

Romano got into the business decades ago. He raced BMX as a kid, and his very first stunt job was in one of the most memorable scenes in modern American film. Remember the scene in ET when the lovable alien makes the bicycles fly? He was one of the bicyclists.

‘Blow Off Steam’ was filmed at the Superstition OHV area down near El Centro, California. It called for some pretty big jumps with flat landings, but the biggest technical challenge was Payne’s goal of getting the whole thing in a single take, and to do it all ‘in camera’, without any computer-generated effects. Payne knew that doing it that way would make it feel real, to real riders who saw the spot.

To pull it off, Romano called in a who’s who of the off-road racing and stunt world. Ronnie Renner (fresh off an X-Games gold medal) and Mike Mason were two of the guys pulling those jumps. Ricky Johnson, an AMA Hall of Fame motocrosser is in there; as are several top Baja racers and current pro motocrossers; one of the trucks is driven by Pikes Peak winner Greg Tracy. All the motorcycle riders used their own bikes.

The crew had one day to rehearse it. Romano choreographed it, and showed the drivers and riders what he wanted them to do by pushing around toy trucks and motorcycles in the dirt.

There’s a lot of cooks stirring the broth on a big commercial shoot like this one. Toyota’s execs, SaatchiLA’s creative team and account execs, Wondros and their director were all looking over Romano’s shoulder. They decided that if they couldn’t get it all in one shot, the way they wanted, by 2 p.m., they’d give up on the single-take version and just make sure they had enough to cut the commercial together.

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The most ‘Mad Max’ looking vehicle on the shoot was actually the off-road camera car, seen in the background of this photo. Getting all that action in a single, continuous 30-second shot was a coup.

“We went through it and went through it,” John Payne told me. “You’d get everything perfect and one guy would screw up, or they’d all do it perfectly but it took 35 seconds and it’s a 30-second commercial so that’s not going to work. We went right to our deadline, and got it on something like the sixteenth take.”

I’m a tough critic when it comes to advertising, and especially tough on advertisers who gratuitously throw a bike into commercials for products that need help in the ‘cool’ department. But Payne, SaatchiLA, Wondros, and (perhaps especially) Stunts Unlimited combined to make a pretty compelling spot for Toyota Tacoma.

Toyota likes it too. “It took a leap of faith [on the part of Toyota’s marketing execs]” Payne recalled. “They said, ‘OK, it sounds cool; hopefully it will be cool.’ Once they saw the first cut, they were gobsmacked, they loved it. It’s impossible to watch that piece and not feel the spirit of the crew that was out there.”

Although couch surfing behind speeding quads, or riding in a giant bunny head, are probably not AMA-sanctioned activities, there is a crazy, infectious spirit to the spot. So thanks, Toyota. You’ve managed to make the best motorcycle commercial of the year.

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Mark Gardiner

Contributing Editor| Articles | In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

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