Selling Mexico: ‘Candid Camera’ Meets ‘Taxicab Confessions’

By Bob Schulman

Did you have a good time on your vacation in Mexico? Are you a chatty, outgoing kind of person willing to share your experience with others? If so, you might get a free ride in a limo to your home or office back in the States. But there's a catch. More about that later.

The offer of a free ride to selected travelers is a key part of the Mexico Tourism Board's new $30 million TV promotion called the “Mexico Taxi Project,” a take off on the HBO reality series, “Taxicab Confessions.” Its objective – using testimonials from “real Americans talking to Americans” – is to change perceptions about conditions tourists find in Mexico.

“Despite what you might have read (about drug-related violence in certain areas), overall we're actually a very safe country,” said Gerardo Llanes, the tourism board's chief marketing officer. “We have statistics showing Mexico's resorts are safer that 95 percent of the major U.S. cities.” Llanes also hopes to change “the old image of Mexico as a place full of shantytowns.”

Candidates for the commercials are identified when vacationers check in at  Mexican resort airports (initially at Cancun and Los Cabos) for their flights back to the U.S.  A project “screener” there looks for chatty and outgoing couples or larger groups willing to participate in a made-up survey about a tequila brand, for which they'll be rewarded with free rides home in limos when they get back to the States.

After the “survey,” their names, photos and comments about them are transmitted to project officials, who refine the selection of candidates down to one couple or group to become “cast members” – unknowingly – in the commercials.

Hired limos will be waiting at U.S. terminals at Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia (more airports will be added soon in the U.S. and Canada) for all but one of the survey participants. The selected cast members will ride in a special limo in which the driver (actually an actor) will ask questions about their vacation. Hidden cameras and mikes in the limo will record the entire conversation.

In one commercial, the driver asks a group of three passengers returning from Los Cabos, “Did you guys feel, like, safe and everything down there?” One person answers, “Totally safe.” Another adds, “I would definitely recommend it. Everything you hear on the news is not what you experience down there.”

A dozen or so conversations are being edited down to 30-second TV spots to be aired on nine cable channels including the National Geographic Channel, the Discovery Channel and the USA Network. Additionally, the spots as well as much larger portions of the conversations will be on the project's Website, MexicoTaxiProject.com, and pieces of 45 seconds or a minute will be on an Internet page.

Any negative comments by cast members will be left intact on the project site, said Llanes, who noted there have been few such comments so far.

A big surprise will be waiting when the limo arrives at the cast members' home.  As in the “Candid Camera” series, project officials will stage a lot of hoop-la there to tell the members they've been on camera for the whole ride. Also there will be a project lawyer, who'll ask the interviewees to sign release forms for the ads.

“So far, everyone has signed,” said Llanes.

The Mexico City office of Publicis Worldwide is handling the ad campaign working with the tourism board's public relations agency, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide.

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