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When marketing and potholes collide Add to ...

Montrealers walking downtown on Tuesday may see a car swallowed by a giant pothole.

For anyone familiar with the streets of Montreal, that may not sound so farfetched. But the scene at Dominion Square, just south of bustling Ste-Catherine street in the city’s core, is indeed a stunt. The car, half-swallowed by a gaping hole in the ground, is meant to publicize a mobile application created by advertising agency Taxi.

The application, called Pothole Season, is a tool to help people all over Canada report potholes on their commute. Users can click through a Google Map – and zoom in through its street view setting to pinpoint the exact location – to tag a spot where they’ve seen (or accidentally driven over) a crater in the road. Every night at midnight, the application gathers these reports and e-mails the appropriate local government office to say they need to be repaired.

The application, which is free to download, is also an ad campaign for Taxi itself. Increasingly, the buzz word in the advertising world is “utility” – using an agency’s creativity to create something engaging but also useful. Taxi is attempting to showcase its talent for utility to prospective clients.

“Helping citizens, and helping the city to do that, we thought would be a fun cause,” said Dominique Trudeau, executive creative director at the agency in Montreal. “And because we’re Taxi too, just to play on the name.”

Traditionally, agencies will do a certain amount of work pro bono for charitable organizations. This work is different, since potholes is a less serious cause without any group behind it. By taking on the work, Taxi is creating some alternative advertising for itself.

“I could have spent X amount of dollars – a lot probably – to take a page in a trade magazine,” Mr. Trudeau said, adding that he preferred to spend that money on something useful. “We’re trying to be more socially engaged.”

For now, the application works for iPhone or through its website. Those who download it can use their phone for voice alerts as they approach a pothole, so they know to avoid it. The website will also track which of them have been repaired. Taxi will be promoting the tool with posters in Montreal and Toronto, print ads, and a social media campaign. The e-mail alerts are programmed for most larger centres, and the agency hopes to gather the appropriate contact information for smaller municipalities as it goes.

If it grows in popularity, there is also an opportunity for Taxi to leverage the tool on behalf of a client for whom sponsoring such an application might be a good brand fit. Canadian Tire and BMW Mini are both clients, whom Mr. Trudeau said they may consider approaching with the idea. And having just received the international license in Apple’s app store, Taxi is already planning international versions.

“In Oslo when the snow melts, they surely have potholes,” he said.

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