250 Photos, 1 Turd Car

What hubris ever made them think of saying more than boo about the FJ Cruiser? Toyota’s answer to the Hummer might have been a look worth wearing for a while, the Nehru jacket of 2007. Yet I’d already driven a prototype 2500 miles. It had enough power to go 80 mph on the highway, but like anything emphasizing the sport component over utility, it wouldn’t be easy to live with if indeed you went for the look. Backing up in the FJ was a chancy proposition because of the huge pillars and the tiny tailgate window. With a two-door body, you had a heavy door to open and close, and good luck getting anyone into the rear seat. Fuel economy stank.

035_35But the copywriting assignment was to emphasize how well the FJ meshed with the life-styles of active, sporty people. I’d attend one of the sporty events where the FJ was being displayed, and in the words of the marketing boss, I was to get the “rationale behind the events and how they naturally complement the abilities of the FJ and how people use them.”

The assignment took me to Waco, Texas, for a mountain bike race in a park along the Brazos River. Although not a very stimulating forum for the FJ, it fit the ad’s production schedule. A promotional team would be there with a specially prepared example of the FJ. In this “nontraditional” marketing endeavor, this example of “engagement” marketing, the team would dispense premium gifts to all and sundry. For those who posed for a photo with the FJ, the result would be posted on a special website, viewed after redemption of a coded card that told Toyota your jock size.

008_81I loitered nearby, hoping for something punchy. “It’s a really cool car. I like cars more heavy-duty and off-road. It has a cool look,” one guy unhelpfully said. Someone else bragged to me about his 1987 4Runner with 240,000 miles: lifted four inches, rolling on 33-inch tires, wearing an ARB bumper with a winch, crowned with a quartet of six-inch KC floods and a gear basket. It wasn’t advancing my story. Besides which, the human interest angle wouldn’t work anyway because of complications in getting releases.

Yet I persisted. It wouldn’t be lame-o if I could help it. I took pictures and interviewed everybody from Saundra Karnes, a Waco Bicycle Club member who was volunteering at the race, to April Cunningham, a 14-year-old competitor from Leander, Texas. April raced to second place in her age group. She also excelled at Guitar Hero, which was set up in the FJ’s cargo area.

Meanwhile, I reminded myself that at least the temperature was pleasantly warm in the low-80s, the air just a bit sultry. I’d seen plenty of bluebonnets while driving down from Dallas. Ah, April in Texas!

015_15I flew home and struggled to produce the copy that was eventually approved. What lingered afterward was the sense something had been wasted: all the exuberant people who had so willingly spoken to me and posed before my camera.

The FJ Cruiser briefly made a mark in the marketplace, but today I question the sanity of anybody buying one. Have you lost your reason, man? Have you left your gas cap at the pump?

For Toyota, another mistimed launch in the truck segment. For me, many images of people pouring on the charm.

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