A Bad Way to Get a Woman’s Motor Running

In March 1994, a young woman in Spain received an anonymous letter in the mail. It was hand-addressed and written on pink paper. “Yesterday we saw each other again,” the note read (in Spanish). “We met on the street and I noticed how you glanced interestedly in my direction. I only need to be with you for a couple of minutes, and even if it doesn’t work out, I promise you won’t forget our little experience together.” It wasn’t signed; the author intended it to be from a secret admirer.

But she wasn’t flatted. She was scared. And she wasn’t alone. The secret admirer didn’t just send her the note — they sent the exact same one to 50,000 young women across the country, all at roughly the same time. The requests created a panic, as you’d probably expect. As the Chicago Tribune noted, citing local reports, “several women felt sufficiently threatened by the letter to lock themselves in their apartments, believing they were being stalked by a psychopath. Others insisted on going out only in male company.” The women were scared.

But they had nothing to fear — well, except maybe high gas prices. Here’s a picture of who — or what — sent the note.

Yes, that’s a car. Specifically, the Fiat Cinquecento, a three-door hatchback that was manufactured, but not all that popular, from 1991-1998. And it wasn’t hoping for 50,000 first dates. It was looking for some new owners.

The notes Fiat sent out were part of a marketing campaign to introduce the Cinquecento to Spanish consumers — the plan was to prime demand with the request “for a couple of minutes [together]” and then, four to six days later, follow up with a letter explaining that the note was from the car company with an invitation for a test drive.

But by the time those notes arrived, the damage had already been done. Women reported the threatening-sounding notes to local authorities. Communities were on the lookout for deranged love-lorn maniacs. And according to El Mundo (via the Tampa Bay Times), “the ad campaign had caused jealousy among married couples.” There are no reports of any of the women actually coming in for a test drive.

One of the 50,000 targets, though, did end up taking Fiat up on their offer for a few minutes — she asked for her day in court. And she won. In July 1994, according to the Independent, “the High Court in the city of Zaragoza fined the Fiat motor company a symbolic 15,000 pesetas [about $100] for sending the letters” — plus the complainant court costs totaling about ten times that — white noting that ad campaign was “in the worst possible taste, with highly erotic content.” While the punishment was symbolic, Fiat was sufficiently embarrassed.

As a result, they added a third mailing to their campaign: one asking for forgiveness. Per the Independent, “Fiat’s marketing director in Spain followed up with a letter of his own, apologizing for any harm done.” This note also allegedly invited them to check out the new Cinquecento, but again, there’s sparse evidence that it was effective.

Bonus fact: Fiat, apparently, didn’t learn its lesson from the 1994 stalker note debacle — at least not immediately, or, perhaps, not internationally. In 2016, Fiat Argentina gave new car owners “a car manual which refers to women as ‘co-pilots’ and men as ‘alpha males’” while also “featur[ing] comments on women’s legs and the length of their skirts,” according to the BBC. After a social media uproar, Fiat Argentina removed the manual from circulation and apologized.

From the Archives: The Marketing Stunt That Vacuumed Up a Whole Company: Oops.