First we had the mysterious Google barge lurking for months on San Francisco Bay, setting off all manner of wild speculation.

On Friday, it was Amazon's turn to mess with our heads.

In a carefully executed, daylong publicity stunt, Amazon and its marketing partner Nissan plopped a huge, canary-yellow storage box in the middle of Justin Herman Plaza, just across the Embarcadero from San Francisco's storied Ferry Building. Measuring 20 feet long, 16 feet wide and 8 feet high, the box was designed to show off Amazon's burgeoning stable of delivery lockers, where customers can pick up items ordered from the online shopping site.

But what's inside this behemoth, you ask?

"Water, I bet," said a homeless onlooker who identified himself simply as "Javier." "Water for drinking."

Nice try.

"I saw on Twitter that they're giving away a car," said designer Meredith Lyon, as she gazed across the plaza at the shiny hulk of metal and stainless steel, nearly three times the size of the more than two dozen lockers Amazon has opened around the Bay Area in stores like 7-Eleven.

Lyon was pretty close.

"Our mission is to try to help people find anything to buy," said Amazon spokeswoman Kristin Mariani, standing near the strange box and lowering her voice to a whisper: "There's a brand-new Nissan Rogue inside that someone will win today."


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The double-barreled publicity stunt had giggling onlookers lined up to get a special code giving them a chance to win one of the prizes, including the car, stashed inside the crate. It gave Amazon a high-profile stage to show off its new locker-based delivery system.

But the box also let Nissan puff up its own feathers by showing off and giving away a car with a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $22,790. The two companies have made marketing music together before -- earlier this year, as part a promotion, Amazon delivered a Nissan Versa in a box with the e-commerce giant's familiar smiling logo.

"This is a great campaign," said visiting Seattle lawyer Mary Gaston, who watched as a crowd of mesmerized office workers and tourists gathered around the box. "I'm a huge Amazon customer, and even though I haven't used the lockers yet for pickup, they seem like a smart and safe way to get your packages. Amazon has changed the way we shop; I even get my toilet paper from them now."

Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689; follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.