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The Year of Hatsune Miku That Wasn't

posted Aug 25, 2012, 1:15 AM by Douglas Sun

Looking back through my posts from last year reminded me that I was intrigued when Toyota used Anime Expo as the launchpad for a campaign for the new Corolla featuring Vocaloid girl Hatsune Miku as its… well, I guess you could say that she was supposed to be its spokesmodel. I spent months after that keeping an eye out for Miku Corolla ads; as an American Vocaloid fan, I was genuinely curious to see how she would be employed, and whether she could demonstrate any mass market appeal on the other side of the Pacific.

Well, it's been over a year since AX 2011, and if anyone ever saw any TV commercials, or print or Internet ads, I'd certainly like to hear about it. I may have seen an Web ad in an obscure place or two. I saw a billboard by the 60 Freeway, along that corridor that runs from City of Industry to Walnut (a big Asian population center, even by San Gabriel Valley standards). But that was pretty much it.

It's disappointing that Toyota's hopes came to so little. But in retrospect, I guess I'm not surprised. IIRC, Toyota was still patching up its image after that scare over supposedly faulty accelerator pedals from the previous year, and it probably needed a different sort of PR than a frothy CG-animated pop diva could provide them. Plus, when you're talking about the vast market for Toyota cars in North America, I just don't think a large enough slice of the target audience recognize Miku to make her an effective rep for a brand as mainstream as Corolla. The Vocaloid software isn't that widely used here, and none of the Project DIVA video games were ever translated into English. SEGA made up for lost time by translating its Miku Flick iOS games, but this is a very recent development. I just don't think that anyone here recognizes Miku outside of otaku who hang out on YouTube.

It seems that TV spots were produced; someone collected them and posted them on YouTube:

They strike me as not just flat, but strained. You can practically feel the minds behind them wondering just what the heck they're supposed to do with this Hatsune Miku character.

The problem with these commercials, I think, is that Miku never emerges as a memorable character. Truly memorable commercials of this sort have pitch people with strong personalities that impose themselves on you. They can be abrasive, like Wendy's "Where's the beef?" lady, or they can be charming and whimsical, like GEICO's Gecko. But they have to have personality.

Miku, as the ad agency tasked with working with her no doubt realized, is not so much character as she is an avatar. She has no real personality. She was created and marketed as an empty vessel — a very attractive vessel, but an empty one nonetheless. Miku is essentially whatever you want her to be; she will "sing" any song you want her to sing, limited only by your skill in working the software. It's really no wonder that so many of her songs are self-referential in that they refer to her as someone who sings, and even as someone whose existence is inextricably linked to the end user, who will "give" her songs to sing.

At AX2010, I openly wondered if this plushie was worth $65. A year later, I effectively answered my own question... although I only paid $60 for it.
One might argue that Crypton Future Media's impressive and strangely beguiling live concerts mark a step toward creating the Vocaloids as characters with palpable personalities. Watching them (as I have, multiple times), you can't help but wonder how slick and polished Miku looks compared to the glassy-eyed cartoon girl waving a leek in time to "Levan Polka" who took Nico Nico Douga by storm. But even then, we understand their actions and gestures as genericwhat we would expect of a typical Japanese pop concert, not distinctive or unique.

That's not to say that Miku can't be used effectively in a commercial, because it has happened, in Japan:

Notice, however, that she gets our attention by doing the one thing that makes her distinctive: She sings. Perhaps that was out of the question for Toyota ads in the North American market because it takes a bit of doing to tweak Miku's repertoire of samples to fit languages other than Japanese — if I'm not mistaken, Yuu Asakawa was chosen as the voice of Megurine Luka, the second Vocaloid girl, in part because of her English enunciation skills. But that brings us back to the original question of whether it was a good idea to use Miku for the North American market in the first place. Singing is the one thing that makes her attractive, but how many people will find her appealing when most people in that market won't understand what she's singing?