Hollywood’s warm embrace of brands


Chris Cashen considers the current trend among filmmakers to produce brand-themed movies. How far should Hollywood go?

There is nothing quite like the thrust of brand owners vying for kids’ attention. The trouble in toyland nowadays is particularly trying for Mattel. Back in 2015, young girls the world over had shunned 56-year old Barbie in favour of electronic toys, tablets and other toys based on popular movies. Revenue plunged and Mattel’s stock hit a 10-year low, 73 per cent down on the previous year.

Greta Gerwig’s movie adaptation of the iconic doll may seem a shill until you discover that Barbie grows disillusioned with the world after discovering the challenges of being a woman. While Mattel released a wheelchair Barbie and a Barbie with Down syndrome, the brand theme spoke to anti-inclusion. Barbie insulted feminism, lacked authenticity and a realistic perception of life.

Interestingly, all growth may not come from younger children alone. Fashion dolls can expect a boost in sales, with dedicated lines to the film. The nostalgic aspect of how adults once held Barbie means unit sales should be age neutral. It seems a well-found assertion when you hear The Lego Movie grossed $468 million, off a cost base of $65m, and a 25 per cent rise in sales of Lego bricks.

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Lego’s move to cinema screens saw the most remarkable turnaround in corporate history. Subsequent releases of Lego Batman, Lego Ninjago and Lego Movie 2 cemented a new model for the world’s major toymakers. However, brand film production is a monstrous cash cow, so it comes as no surprise that Mattel has as many as 14 content projects currently on the go. Barbie is one of several global brands getting motion picture treatment. Nike’s Air, starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos movie have suddenly taken on title status. Do brand-led films shred the art form? At what point does it damage filmmaking and become a soulless, ad-funded narrative?

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Or is that just a contrarian view? Should the old filmmaking model hold firm? Production companies will still make original films based on best-selling books. Why shouldn’t cultural icons like Super Mario get their day on the big screen? Audiences will determine if the cultural icon at the centre is of sufficient appeal. After all, admissions determine if it’s worthwhile or not.

Suppose a film veers too close to the sun as a protracted ad. In that case, ravaged by reviews, cinemagoers will refrain, and the negative perception is equity burning. Indeed, the success of this is whether there is artistic integrity, awards and other recognition, allowing it to be a standalone entity and not just a greasing agent for bumping up sales. Real life and craft are blurring beyond recognition.

But there is good and bad. Some brand-led films strive to be subtle, while others are downright crude. Transformers are blatant feature-length car commercials, which one could argue is part of the spectacle, but it loses all legitimacy when a Mountain Dew dispenser becomes a Transformer, followed immediately by Xbox and Cadillac Transformers.

It insults the art of storytelling.

Barbie on the silver screen: Mattel expects a bumper summer with the live-action Barbie, starring Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in the title role. The July roll out of the company’s flagship toy on the big screen is central to Mattel’s struggle against a consumer shift in interests and behaviours. Ynon Kreiz was hired as Mattel’s CEO – a businessman with no experience in toy making but with a track record in showbusiness and media.

The Internship, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, tried hard with its Google theme. Too hard. You wonder who supported the production at Alphabet, the excessive eulogising of the brand and the overuse of the Google logo. Brand owners must avoid a temptation to step beyond the dividing line, giving an incredible inflexion on the art form while prioritising a commercial boost.

If brands are willing to speculate on the big screen with tens of millions of dollars and support renowned directors and star-filled casts, why can’t they enjoy the spoils? If poorly done, they fail abysmally. If done well, the films are there to entertain cinemagoers and   boost brand sales. Win-win. It’s a balancing act, performed some distance from the moral high ground.


It feels like a cheat code for cultural icons of the past to get renewed, a multi-generation attraction and a recognised reference point for generations to come. Barbie will continue to appeal to more consumers by making dolls with prosthetic limbs, with no hair or with vitiligo. It’s hard to argue a box office hit for a fresh, broad injection into the forehead of Barbieland.

We are inevitably torpedoing towards a Truman Show reality where our entire lives are live action embodying brand-infiltrated reality series. Brand involvement is not new to movie making. They don’t always have to get top billing. But to make a movie blockbuster like ET, Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces had to part-fund Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece so it could achieve the right exposure.

No ET? Unthinkable.

Chris Cashen is managing partner at Mindshare












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