Anime doesn’t hit mainstream America very often. Aside from Disney’s release of Studio Ghibli films, anime is almost never touched by mainstream companies. So imagine my surprise when I logged into my social networking page a few weeks ago and came across an ad titled “Hatsune Miku+Corolla.” Hatsune Miku is an anime character, and Corolla is a major brand for Toyota. Did I read that right? Anime has infected my mainstream reality?
This is something because, as far as I know, this is the first time in the United States that an anime character has been used to sell a product other than something anime-related. Though it could be aimed at a niche market (the anime crowd) thanks to internet tracker ads, I’ve seen the Miku+Corolla banner atop social networking pages, video sharing sites, and even a few videogame forums. Not to mention the fact that the Toyota webpage has an entire section devoted to the campaign. This is big, folks – very big.
So what is Toyota doing? They are taking a multimedia, multi-artist approach to selling the Corolla line with the anime-style character Hatsune Miku as the lead icon of the campaign. The marketing is clever: They draw from current Western fervor for becoming an overnight pop sensation and add in Miku in order to help sell the Corolla under the “dream big/dream small” motto, which emphasizes the car’s compact size and cost, but big potential to impact the buyer’s life.
Hatsune Miku is the “lead character” of a music-synthesizing suite of programs named “Vocaloid,” the first of which debuted in Japan in 2007. Since its inception it has created several iconic characters, each of whom has a pre-captured, real-life voice talent assigned to them as they together “sing” the score programmed by the user. The characters are often referred to as “from Vocaloid,” even though Vocaloid is actually the technology behind the program, and many derivative programs with various names feature the characters. Miku, however, was the first full sprite designed for the program, and is the one most publicized and popular in Japan. She’s never seen without her on-stage headset mic and long blue pigtails, so combining her with a wave of fervor in America for pop singers makes sense.
Hatsune Miku is huge phenomenon in Japan. Why? I can offer a few thoughts on this, though they come with the grain of salt that I didn’t go to school for marketing. First up, our character has a cool name. It’s spelled with the characters for “beginning” (?, hatsu) and “sound” (?, ne), in keeping with the music theme. “Miku” (??) is fun but also possibly derived from mirai (??) – future. Secondly, the characters wear outfits based on Japanese school uniforms (the sailor variety), complete with ties and skirts (ties and shorts for the boys). Each character has a different color trim to their gray uniform; Miku’s is iridescent blue, the color associated with “cool, in-the-know” computer users. Furthermore, Japan is a country where anime characters are regularly mascots of businesses and ad campaigns. It also is a place which equally fetishizes the schoolgirl image and idealizes the school years as the best time of life (gakuseijidai, ????), so it’s no surprise that the compellingly designed characters of Vocaloid have become smash hits, and Hatsune Miku is the brightest star among them.
A notable detail of the Miku+Corolla campaign is its interdisciplinary focus. Part of the campaign features a different artist for each promotional poster. The artist envisions the qualities of Miku, Vocaloid, music, and the “dream big/dream small” motto, combined with traditional well-lit views of the compact Corolla. Some are incredibly bold and colorful, as if sound waves had colors; others, more realistic. A very interesting way to spruce up a single-color car, for sure.
A second visual part of the campaign is the videos that bring Miku to life. Rather than using a human model, the ads include shorts of a computer-generated, 3-D Miku dropped into live-action footage, in which she “interacts” with things and people. Yes, this has been done before, but some of the most memorable ads in American history are ones with computer-generated, feel-good mascots (the Coca-Cola polar bears, anyone?). But in America, this has never been done with an anime character. Miku has “performed” in Japan via digital projections during stage concerts; in America, Toyota is developing attachment to her personality through this campaign – are they dreaming big for future promotions?
From a women’s rights perspective, this is neat because, even though Miku is an anime female with a blatantly fetish uniform, her physical proportions are as normal as it gets. In the images, emphasized features are always her hands, her hair, and her voice, rather than hips, legs, or breasts. On the flip side, the computer-generated shorts of Miku are made for a Japanese audience, so Miku looks very much like a resin anime figurine – not realistic in the slightest – and she is imagined as a rather ditsy creature. (Though, admittedly, less-so than the real-life sidekicks, as evidenced in “Corolla + Miku – Hotdog.”)
Underneath, Toyota seems to be doing two things that are age-old in the car-sales industry: creating through its ads an unconscious image that “this product is your dream,” ie, your car is your marker of success; in this case, the marker of success you’ll have someday, as that shower-singer who dreams big and dreams free. They are also employing the trick, “Put a pretty woman next to the car.” What’s really cool for American anime and manga fans about this is that it’s an anime woman. Fully Japanese anime design is not only making a mainstream jump, but fans are getting recognition as being a market big enough for an international company to market to for big-ticket products. In an era of recession, Toyota is looking to capture the hope of youths to reclaim the American Dream, and it’s doing that with an anime character.
At the end of the day, Miku’s put in a hard day of work in America, and marketing historians and anime/manga fans alike should take notice.