Toyota Motor Sales USA’s ad launch for its restyled 2011 Highlander crossover is attracting quite a bit of online criticism.

The multi-media campaign, which broke in late October, centers around the theme “Just because you’re parents doesn’t mean you have to be lame.” The line is delivered by a young actor playing eight-year-old Nathan James, who uses the Highlander to show parents how not to be lame.

At the start of the campaign, Nathan’s “dorky” parents drive an unbadged, old minivan, but they soon buy a new Highlander and become more hip. In a current television commercial, Nathan pokes fun at another boy, embarrassed to be seen in his parent’s old station wagon.

But consumers quickly started a backlash against the ads on chat boards, blogs, social networks and even Toyota’s own YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/highlander.

They’re upset that Nathan is such a “brat,” calling him materialistic and rude to his parents. They criticize Toyota for trying to “blackmail parents” into buying a new vehicle they might not be able to afford. Some have threatened to never again buy a Toyota, even current or past Toyota owners. A Facebook page called “Toyota Highlander Commercial Sucks,” carries the description “because using children to manipulate their parents through social condemnation is not cute.”

Many are calling for Toyota to pull the ads from Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles. Toyota’s Tim Morrison, corporate manager of marketing communications, was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

But Greg Thome, a spokesman at the automaker, issued this statement to AutoTrader:

“The object to the Highlander ad campaign is to demonstrate the stylish redesign of the vehicle in a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek manner. The campaign was certainly not meant to offend our customers or parents in general. Our values as a company have always been to put our customers first and provide them the highest levels of respect and understanding.
 Our consumer research encouraged us to tap into the universal belief that pre-teen kids are easily embarrassed by their parents using standard advertising hyperbole. We regret that the story portrayed in the ad has been misconstrued as insensitive.
 We’ve received very positive feedback from Nielsen research on the campaign content and its effectiveness with viewers. While we regret that the ads have been misconstrued as insensitive by some, we don’t have any plans at this time to discontinue the campaign.”

author photo

Jean Halliday is a seasoned journalist with the nation's longest consecutive run covering auto advertising. Her years in the trenches include stints at Automotive News, Adweek and Advertising Age. The native New Yorker now lives outside the Motor City. You can read Jean's blog at AutoAdOpolis.wordpress.com.

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