'Gil the Crab' Pinches MySpace Users to Promote Cult Car

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Charges against Gil the Crab have been dropped, and he got his job back at Honda. His video directorial debut premieres today on MySpace.com/crab.

Gil is a branding effort dreamed up by creative group RPA for the Honda Element, a futuristic car with swing doors.

"A lot of people that were shopping for the Element didn't know what to make of it, so we created a campaign to educate consumers by comparing the car to odd animals," said Mike Margolin, vice president and associate media director at RPA, Los Angeles.

The Element is part SUV, part van, part surf wagon, but full hip young ideology. The car has cargo flip doors and optional kayak, ski and snowboard racks.

The campaign started last October with a site at www.elementandfriends.com in which the vehicle was identified with the strange features of animals like the duckbilled platypus, crabs and possums. The effort included downloadable video spots and an online game where consumers could play with the animals on an island and, in doing so, learn about the car's features.

The videos were being downloaded and posted by consumers on sites like YouTube and Yahoo Videos, so toward July, RPA decided that it was time for phase two of the campaign. In a publicity stunt, "Gil the Crab," a key character in the games and videos, was fired from Honda. The out-of-work actor started a MySpace page to vent to his friends about being unemployed. His story of being down on his luck gained popularity, and he recently started the petition process to get his job back from Honda at www.savethecrab.com.

Gil has 101,000 MySpace friends and 7,000 comments, a pretty good friend count after only 2 1/2 months on MySpace. According to RPA, this was all grassroots viral marketing where the agency didn't even have to ask for many friends. People came to the crab, whose drawing says, "I pinch." Gil, or rather, RPA, posted comments on other people's message boards, wrote blogs and made only the occasional friend request.

But all the attention got Gil into trouble. He was arrested for unlawful pinching, and there were even charges of possession of unlawful crab grass. Gil had his mug posted on popular celebrity mug shot site TheSmokingGun.com (through a paid spot, of course).

"It was a real 'E! true Hollywood story type of thing," said J Barbush, writer for the campaign at RPA.

Even before the charges were cleared, Honda brought Gil back on board thanks to the efforts of petition signatures. Not only does Gil act in the commercial, he is also the writer/director of the spot.

But do consumers who play games online and socialize on MySpace buy cars?

"This is definitely a branding effort," Mr. Margolin said. "A lead generation campaign through search was also conducted to drive sales."

However, sales have risen 15 percent since last year, a positive sign for the campaign given that the car is in its fourth year and a decline in sales is common by this point. Typical Element owners do not take themselves very seriously. The main demographic is young men, a bit younger than the usual car demographic, so MySpace was chosen as the place for the ads.

"It's sort of fostered community for Element owners who have the car already to let them know that other people like the car, too, and that it is cool," Mr. Barbush said.

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