It’s been weeks. Why haven’t I gone to see the movie adaptation of my favorite childhood story, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax? It wasn’t the trailers or previews, but rather the antics of Universal Pictures’ marketing department and their eagerness to slap a “Lorax Approved” logo on any product within earshot and produce beaming endorsements for any brand—however ill-suited they might be—willing to pony up. When compared to the lessons from the original story, the irony kills. The blasphemy is palpable.
From a marketer’s perspective, The Lorax’s awkward corporate love-fest, and the resulting backlash, prove that it’s now imperative to define your brand’s story platform—the core narrative at the heart of your brand, where all promotions and marketing should tie back to and stay true to. Read up on The Lorax’s worst offense yet, the overall saga, and other exploits in nostalgic cinema after the jump.
While The Lorax’s producers, Universal Pictures, have forged suitable partnerships with eco-conscious companies like Seventh Generation, Whole Foods and the Environmental Protection Agency; the likes of Mazda, IHOP and Comcast also made the cut. In fact, the film has taken on nearly 70 sponsors. Cue Mazda’s CX-5 SUV ripping through streets paved into Truffula Forest; Lorax-approved Xfinity TV service; Truffula Chip pancakes. Some, like Triple Pundit, have cried greenwashing. Greenwashing, meaning the disingenuous tactic used by marketers to form a faulty impression that a company’s policies or products are eco-friendly. In the case of 2012’s Lorax, this means shilling for brands that provide coin, but aren’t necessarily in line with genuine green practices.
The film itself has gone on to great success at the box office, but the choices made in its promotion have effectively weakened the framework of the classic story and greatly reduced the credibility of the content being offered. For the brands that sponsored the film without taking a good, hard look at what their own story is, consumers have been quick to point out their missteps. (Tip: look harder next time.)
CNN.com published an article on The Lorax which included a sampling of the outrage from bloggers and parents. One profiled parent has refused to take her children to see the movie on the grounds that the advertising in question contradicts the original story’s core message. Smosh added their two cents by wondering out loud what the original tale would have looked if corporate dollars had been behind it. Elsewhere, full protest campaigns have been launched, such as Rethinking the Automobile’s #SaveLorax.
THE LORAX’S WORST OFFENSE YET
By far the worst instance of The Lorax’s strange, ill-fitting marketing is the shameless promotion currently being carried out at schools across the country in lockstep with Mazda. The Read Across America Tour (“Driven by Mazda”) brings a life-size Lorax to classrooms to read to children. The Lorax himself then donates a $1,000 check (courtesy of Mazda) to the school. All well and good, right? That is, until everyone’s ushered outside to test-drive Mazda’s slick new truffula tree-approved vehicles! The kicker? Mazda is dangling, in front of impressionable children, the chance to win a trip to Universal Studios if they’re able to persuade their parents to test drive one of the brand’s vehicles. (They’ll also donate $25 to the NEA’s public school foundation.) Doesn’t sound very Seuss-like to me.
Even if this was a competitive reality TV show (which it certainly sounds like), Mazda would be asking for some seriously bad karma—but they’re carrying out their campaign within school grounds. Did they think their methods would go unnoticed? Stephen Colbert, The Atlantic, CNN and CNBC certainly have. Worse, the Lorax acts as the inside man during all this, enticing excited schoolchildren with his tales before selling them on the very machines that are largely responsible for the mess we’re in as a planet.
The Read Across America tour is especially troublesome, considering the lessons Dr. Seuss’ original story hoped to impart. Think of it this way: if the right student—who actually managed to get the message of the story amidst all the meddlesome marketing—confronted the Mazda representatives and called out the carmaker, and his/her parents happened to be filming, Mazda (not to mention Universal’s Lorax) would be in for a world of viral hurt. Not that media coverage of their clumsily constructed partnership hasn’t taken its toll on the carmaker already.
Fast Company’s Co.EXIST hit on the basic storytelling faux pas present in a piece on the scholastic crusade—how far off-message Mazda is by even being involved: “Mazda (and many other of the film’s corporate sponsors) are missing the point. The Lorax wouldn’t drive a car; he would probably ride a bike. Or just walk.”
A RESURGENCE IN NOSTALGIA
The Lorax is not alone as a relic of the past being unearthed and reimagined for modern times. Over the past decade, Hollywood has seemingly focused as much on telling new stories as they have on adapting and remaking well-loved classics. Stories that are near and dear to a generation, as a reflection of their collective childhood. From Karate Kid to Total Recall; The Lorax to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, everything old is suddenly new again. Do it right, and you’ll reignite passion and bridge a gap between generations eager to share something together. Botch the promotion by straying too far from the original story’s meaning—such as with The Lorax—and you’ll risk disappointing the very audience you hope to enthuse. A lack of confidence may not come out when the content is first released, it’s something the stays after the dust has settled—and, when the next offering nears release day.
Disney may be onto something with their true-to-form re-releases of children’s classics like Beauty and the Beast with updated technology. Titanic employed a similar tactic when returning to theaters to help celebrate a historic milestone. But let’s not forget George Lucas’s efforts to tinker with the original Star Wars trilogy when the films were remastered the first time around. The series’ fervent fanbase noticed the changes immediately, crying foul and turning sour on the new versions. Again, that didn’t, by any means, spell disaster come payday, but there’s since been an air of distrust and negativity from diehard fans associated with the series creator.
Most recently, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans—a series cherished by 80’s babies—were in an uproar over news that the series reboot would rewrite the franchise’s origin story. Furthermore, it would now simply be called Ninja Turtles. The outrage grew so loud that Michael Bay (the project’s producer) had to issue a public statement defending the film’s scriptwriters, director and overall direction. All in an effort to assure fans that the movie will ring true.
LESSONS IN STORYTELLING
Don’t disrespect the story. Now, with the advent of the playing field-leveling powers of social media, voices expressing reason and outrage can move mountains. Whether it’s a beloved, long-running television series or a new piece of branded content, it’s as much owned by fans as it is the original creators. For those who hope to capitalize on treasured franchises for new commercial success, tread carefully. Choose your brand partnerships wisely. People hold their favorite stories near and dear. To weaken the framework that upholds your original story is to damage your brand’s credibility and weaken trust in it and any future endeavors.
Here’s the larger marketing implication: as more brands begin to literally become their story, it’s imperative that all executions tie back to a unified, credible story platform—the defining statement about your brand that keeps elements aligned and the core narrative always in mind. (More on that here.) This should be as important to the folks behind The Lorax as the brands who’ve cheerfully associated themselves with it: partaking in something that’s not true to your story and mission is more than disingenuous to your audience—it’s dangerous to your reputation. These days, trust is the only real asset a brand has. Marketers must do everything in their power to preserve it.