Engineering an ad

Jan. 10, 2008
How do you convince a doubting public your truck is tough? You show them.

Stephen J. Mraz

Every once in a while, a series of television commercials comes along that is more interesting and compelling than the programs it is sponsoring. Case in point: the recent spots touting the Tundra pickup truck from Toyota. Each commercial lets has truck demonstrating its prowess on a piece of oversized playground equipment.

Many viewers think the ads are doctored, with perhaps a touch of computer-aided chicanery, but companies responsible for the commercials and the truck insist that what you see really happened.

Here’s a peek behind the scenes.

The creative team at Saatchi & Saatchi LA, a major advertising firm, had a simple task: convince American TV viewers that Toyota’s Tundra is a tough, rugged truck that can handle anything the average pickup driver might throw at it. So they talked to truck owners and drivers and asked them what characteristics are most important for a truck. The answers weren’t too surprising; power, braking, acceleration, stability, and towing were among the most popular,

“We knew what we wanted to highlight, the attributes real truckers are interested in,” says Erich Funke, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi LA. “So we decided to do a series of commercials that would do just that.”

Because Toyota was planning a series of three or more commercials, the advertising agency wanted them all to have a similar look and feel, so they developed a template, a list of common features. “The ads would have to be authentic, real demonstrations that proved a point about the truck,” says Funke. “They also had to be filmed in a location that was rugged and rough, a place where the living was hard. At first, we wanted to shoot the ads at locations all across America. But the budget only allowed us to do so much, and the farther you travel, the more it costs. We ended up with locations mostly in the West. We also wanted to base the ads in part on the seven simple machines, the inclined plane, wheel and axle, lever, pulley, wedge, and screw.”

The first concept the ad team came up with was to have a truck tow a heavy load up an inclined ramp. The ramp would lead up and onto a seesaw, and when the truck drove over the fulcrum, its weight would push the seesaw down onto another ramp. Finally, the truck and loaded trailer would come to a halt while still on the ramp.

After getting internal approval at Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad team double-checked with some engineers to make sure the plan was doable. With a thumbs-up from the engineers, the team presented it to Toyota, who fully bought into the plan. Next, they hired a production house to film the commercials, who went on to engage an engineering-consulting group. Together, the expanded team worked out the details, such as how high the fulcrum would be, what angle for the ramps, and how big a load the truck should pull. These answers had to be checked with Toyota engineers to make sure the Tundra could handle the task. (It could.)

The team constructed a computer model of the proposed contraption and simulated the event. They also built a scaled-down physical model so Toyota managers could see what they were getting into.

The next step was building the giant seesaw in the lonely locale they had chosen: Lone Pine, Calif., at the base of the highest mountain in the Lower 48 states.

“The length of the two ramps and seesaw was 540 ft, with the seesaw making up 240 of those feet,” says Bruce McCloskey, a freelance production designer involved with the ads. “The fulcrum was about 60-ft tall, a number chosen by director Andrew Douglas because he thought it would look impressive.”

The roadway slanted up (and down) at a 27.5° angle. “A testing facility determined the Tundra could climb such an incline, but it was by no means the uppermost limit,” says McCloskey.

The final structure used over 350,000 lb of steel — 165,000 lb in just the seesaw portion. At the fulcrum, the seesaw rested on an 8-in.-diameter steel tube. There were no bearings, only gravity held the moving portion in place, and only the weight of the truck, along with the 10,000-lb load it was towing, would move the seesaw into the down position. There were decelerators, however. A series of 12-in. rubber dampers cushioned the shock as the seesaw came down on the far ramp. The final structure, a four-week construction job, could be seen from 4 miles away.

Shooting the 30-sec commercial took three days and a crew of about a hundred. A safety crew did deploy some proprietary (and secret) precautionary devices, but they were never used, according to Funke. And the driver was always in radio communication with the film crew and the rest of his safety team.

After the shoot, the structure was taken down and as much of it as possible reused in the next spot. “That gave us a common look between all the commercials,” says Funke. “But both Toyota and our company are very green-minded and we don’t like the idea of waste.” The crew also removed every piece of trash they had brought with them, leaving locations just as barren and lonely as when they found them.

For the second ad in the series, a Tundra accelerates along an 800-ftlong ramp cantilevered off the edge of a cliff, going 0 to 60 mph before the driver hits the brakes, bringing it safely to stop — about 4 in. from the edge. To add more excitement, a pair of sliding steel doors positioned across the roadway begins closing as soon as the Tundra trips a photoelectric eye. If all went according to plan, the truck would have 8 in. of clearance on the left and right when it passed the closing doors. “And they were not breakaway doors,” says McCloskey, “They were all steel, in a steel frame, and ran along a guide in the roadway. They definitely would have stopped the truck.”

To prepare the site, an abandoned iron mine, the crew used several earthmovers to remove boulders and level the ground. They also decided to elevate the roadway 3 ft on steel trusses rather than put it flat on the ground. “If we put it on the ground, we would’ve had to do some digging and extra engineering to get the road cantilevered out over the drop,” says McCloskey. “Putting it up on the trusses made it look more like a planned demonstration, and using the same steel from the previous event just helped make both ads look similar.“

Despite the potential danger in all the ads, Funke and McCloskey insist the Tundra was a stock, off-the-showroom-floor model. “For each spot, three people from the surrounding community, usually a judge, film commissioner, and an attorney, watched the entire filming,” says McCloskey. “They also signed affidavits attesting that there was no trick photography and that the truck really performed just as we show in the ads. And those affidavits are on file in our L.A. offices.”

To show the Tundra has real pulling power, a third spot has the truck on a roadway cantilevered out over a 180-ft cliff in an old rock quarry. A cable hooked to the truck’s towing hitch snakes through some pulleys and clamps and over the side of the cliff. A standard metal shipping container hangs suspended on the other end of the cable. For the commercial, a crewmen releases the clamp, letting the 6,400-lb container fall a bit, giving the truck a jolting backward tug. The truck then pulls forward, yanking the container up and over the side of the drop-off.

““We talked about using large pulleys, or block and tackle, which gives the truck a mechanical advantage,” says McCloskey. “But the creatives at Saatchi & Saatchi decided that anything that made it easier for the Tundra to pull the container up would be cheating. So we went with a simple pulley that would make it a one-for-one pull.”

The production team did run into a problem with this spot: the location wasn’t exactly what they wanted. “We had spent two days scouting locations for this spot,” says McCloskey. “And after flying from New Mexico, to Arizona, and up and down California, we finally found the Sierra Rock Quarry, which seemed to have the sheer drop we needed. But once we got on site and started construction, we discovered the bottom wall of the quarry stuck out farther than we had anticipated. That meant we had to increase the amount of roadway sticking out over the cliff by 10 ft to keep the container from hitting it. The extra road also meant we had to add more steel to the roadway to counterbalance the container and add more concrete to the ballast that kept it all stable. And we had to do all this in a week.”

Wrecking hammer
The fourth, and maybe the most impressive spot so far, involves two swinging pendulums, each with a 9,000-lb I-beam at the end. A pair of 93-ft towers held the cross members on which the pendulums swung. The production team laid a 1,500-ft asphalt roadway directly beneath and between the supporting towers. This put the road directly in the path of the swinging steel beams when they were released from their holding position 72-ft up. The truck would roar down the roadway, hitting 50 mph. At some well-calculated point, a clamp would open and the first I-beam would begin swinging, coming close to the moving truck, Not much later, the second I-beam would begin to swing free. There were no brakes on the pendulums; no way to slow or stop them.

The truck just barely misses being struck by the first beam, comes to an abrupt stop, then has less than a second to accelerate out of the away before the second I-beam smashes into it. To make things more difficult, the Tundra is towing a trailer loaded with 10,300 lb.

There’s been some carping about this ad and the seesaw spot by folks on the Internet saying the truck really wasn’t towing 10,000 lb, and that the ads deliberately mislead by including the 6,000-lb weight of the truck in the overall 10,000-lb figure. But Funke and McCloskey are adamant; the trailers carried 10,000 lb or more, so the truck’s engine is really moving over 16,000 lb. (And they have the affidavits to back them up.)

There’s also been some complaints that the trailer used in these two spots is outfitted with electric brakes, so the trailer’s providing the stopping power, not the truck. “But in keeping with safe driving, you need electric brakes on trailers to drive legally on the streets,” says Funke. “Had we not used them, someone would say Toyota is implicitly endorsing the idea of not using trailer brakes. Besides, our commercials had to be in keeping with how real truckers use their trucks.”

Make Contact
To see more of the commercials and some images from the planning and construction of them, go to Toyota’s Web site at:

A crane slides a 6,400-lb container over the side of a worked-out rock quarry.

Prior to assembling the equipment for each spot, the production crew studied schematics and built scale working models, such as this 1/8th scale model of the wrecking hammer pendulums.

A production team making a truck commercial watches as a swinging 9,000-lb I-beam narrowly misses a stopped Tundra truck. And the truck must accelerate out of the way of another beam swinging down behind it.

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